WASHINGTON -- Blistered by bipartisan condemnation of his embrace of a longtime U.S. enemy, President Donald Trump sought Tuesday to "clarify" his public undermining of American intelligence agencies, saying he had misspoken when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
"The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or why it wouldn't be Russia.' Sort of a double negative," instead of "why it would," Trump said, in a rare admission of error. His comment -- amid rising rebuke by his own party -- came about 27 hours after his original, widely reported statement at a Monday summit in Helsinki standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place," Trump said Tuesday, reading mostly off a sheet of paper, before a meeting with Republican members of Congress at the White House.
Trump said he reviewed the transcript from the joint news conference Monday, and he "realized that there is a need for clarification."
But Trump also floated, without evidence, the possibility that other actors may have been involved, a conclusion that is not backed up by the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies.
He added, "It could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all."
Moments earlier, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell issued a public reassurance to U.S. allies in NATO and Europe with whom Trump clashed during his Europe trip last week.
"The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not," McConnell said. "They've demonstrated that in all the obvious ways over the last few years with the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, not to mention the indisputable evidence that they tried to impact the 2016 election."
The scripted cleanup dealt with only the latest of Trump's statements during his weeklong trip, in which he sent the NATO alliance into emergency session and assailed British Prime Minister Theresa May as she was hosting him for an official visit.
Trump on Tuesday did not address, however, his assertion at Monday's news conference that "I have confidence in both parties" in response to a question about whether he believed Putin's denial or the intelligence committee's conclusion about Russia's interference in the election.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., immediately seized on Trump's remarks, saying the president "tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday."
"It's 24 hours too late and in the wrong place," Schumer said in a tweet.
Republicans were hardly more charitable.
"This has been more than unfortunate," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "It has been a debacle. The fact that he is kind of retracing his step is important, but he sure stepped in it yesterday."
"I'm just glad he clarified it," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said after Trump's Tuesday remarks. "I can't read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time, and suffice it to say that for me as a policymaker, what really matters is what we do moving forward."
Trump's remarks followed a morning tweet in which he blamed the media for negative coverage of Monday's news conference and said that his meeting with Putin had gone "even better" than a meeting with NATO allies the week before.
"While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia," Trump wrote, referring to his efforts to increase defense spending by U.S. allies. "Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!"
Later Tuesday after his walkback, Trump tweeted, "The meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!"
BOTH PARTIES REACT
On Tuesday, a growing number of Republicans had called for Trump to take swift action to embrace the U.S. intelligence community's findings about Russian interference and limit the damage from Helsinki.
"Let's be very clear, just so everybody knows: Russia did meddle with our elections," said House Speaker Paul Ryan. "What we intend to do is make sure they don't get away with it again and also to help our allies."
Ryan said the relevant committees should determine whether additional sanctions targeting Russia are appropriate. If so, he said, he would be "more than happy to consider" them.
In the Senate, McConnell said "there's a possibility" his chamber would act, pointing to a bipartisan measure from Rubio and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to deter future Russian interference by ordering sanctions against countries if they do.
"In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again," he added.
In addition, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., a top McConnell lieutenant, mentioned a bill he has introduced to require the State Department to consider within 90 days whether Russia should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Both parties called for Pompeo and other officials to appear before Congress and tell exactly what happened during Trump's two-hour private session with Putin. Pompeo is to publicly testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25.
Schumer also urged the Senate to take up legislation to boost security for U.S. elections and to revive a measure passed earlier by the Judiciary Committee to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.
"Our Republican colleagues cannot just go, 'tsk-tsk-tsk,'" Schumer said. "They need to act."
But Democrats, the minority in both houses, have few tools to push their priorities.
In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi staged a vote Tuesday in support of the intelligence committee's findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. But even that largely symbolic measure was blocked party-line by Republicans.
"Yesterday, President Trump cowered before President Putin, and engaged in a dangerous, disgraceful and damaging show of his Blame America First policy," she wrote in a letter to colleagues outlining steps by the party to draw attention to Trump's meeting with Putin. "His total weakness in the presence of Putin proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically."
Senators had floated a similar idea earlier, but the No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said sanctions may be preferable to a nonbinding resolution that amounts to "just some messaging exercise."
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., however, said he was preparing to introduce a resolution similar to Pelosi's. He told reporters Tuesday that the resolution would basically say, "We believe the intelligence, regardless of what Putin is saying."
Many Republicans found themselves wrestling with a dilemma two years in the making: They could publicly undermine the president and risk upsetting the loyal Trump voters they need to win elections, or they could stifle their own long-held beliefs that Russia is a dangerous actor set on destabilizing the United States.
"You see people down on the floor scurrying around trying to find a way to push back against what has happened," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman. "The dam has broken. What we've got to figure out is how do we deal with it, because the president in 15 minutes can foul up six months or a year of goodwill."
After his walk-back Tuesday, the president also said, "I have full faith in our intelligence agencies." He also pledged that his administration would aggressively try to prevent Russian efforts to interfere in the coming midterm elections in November.
As Trump said he had "full faith" in his intelligence agencies, the lights went out and he looked around, confused.
"Must be the intelligence agencies," he joked.
"We are doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018," he said. "And we have a lot of power."
Fellow GOP politicians have generally stuck with Trump during a year and a half of turmoil, but he was assailed as seldom before as he returned home Monday night.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky emerged as one of the president's few defenders from his own party. He defended Trump's skepticism to CBS News on Tuesday, citing the president's experience on the receiving end of "partisan investigations."
Back at the White House, Paul's comments drew a presidential tweet of gratitude. "Thank you RandPaul, you really get it!" Trump tweeted.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Lisa Mascaro, Ken Thomas, Darlene Superville, Jill Colvin, Jonathan Lemire, and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press; by John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez,Michael Birnbaum, Ashley Parker and Robert Costa of The Washington Post; and by Eileen Sullivan, Mark Landler, Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer condemns President Donald Trump’s words on Russia during a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Schumer was accompanied by (from left) Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
“The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, seeking to reassure European allies with whom President Donald Trump clashed last week.
A Section on 07/18/2018
Print Headline: Trump dials back remarks about Russia; It meddled, he misspoke, he says amid GOP backlash