Trump backs off siding with Russia over US intelligence amid bipartisan anger
The US president is under pressure from Democrats and Republicans over the summit with his Russian counterpart.
Donald Trump has backed away from his public undermining of American intelligence agencies after he was blistered by bipartisan condemnation in the US.
The president said he simply misspoke when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 election that put him in the White House.
Rebuked as never before by his own party, including a stern push-back from usually reserved Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the US president sought to end 27 hours of recrimination by delivering a rare admission of error.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t, or why it wouldn’t be Russia'” instead of “why it would,” Mr Trump said.
He had made the original comments standing alongside Vladimir Putin on a stage in Helsinki.
That did not explain why Mr Trump, who had tweeted a half a dozen times and sat for two television interviews since the Putin news conference, waited so long to correct his remarks.
And the scripted cleanup pertained only to the least defensible of his comments.
He did not reverse other statements in which he gave clear credence to Mr Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian involvement, raised doubts about his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions and advanced discredited conspiracy theories about election meddling.
He also accused past American leaders, rather than Russia’s destabilising actions in the US and around the world, for the souring of relations between two countries.
And he did not address his other problematic statements during a week-long Europe tour, 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.
The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Mr Trump conceded on Tuesday.
But even then he made a point of adding: “It could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all.”
Moments earlier, Mr McConnell felt the need to reassure America’s allies in Europe with whom Mr Trump clashed during his frenzied trip last week.
With no ifs or buts, the Republican leader declared: “The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump was trying to “squirm away” from his comments alongside Mr Putin.
“It’s 24 hours too late and in the wrong place,” Mr Schumer said.
By dusk, hundreds of activists, led by attorney Michael Avenatti and actress Alyssa Milano, staged a protest near the White House, with chants of “traitor!” echoing along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mr Trump still maintained that his meetings with Nato allies went well and his summit with Mr Putin “even better”.
But this reference to diplomatic success carried an edge, too, since the barrage of criticism and insults he delivered in Brussels and London was hardly well-received.
Later on Tuesday, Mr Trump tweeted: “The meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!”
Both parties called for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials to appear before Congress and tell exactly what happened during Mr Trump’s two-hour private session with Mr Putin.
Mr Pompeo is to publicly testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25.
Mr Schumer also urged the Senate to take up legislation to boost security for US elections and to revive a measure passed earlier by the Judiciary Committee to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
But minority Democrats have few tools to enforce anything.
Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Putin in Helsinki was his first time sharing the international stage with a man he has described as an important US competitor — but whom he has also praised a strong, effective leader.
Standing alongside Mr Putin, Mr Trump steered clear of any confrontation with the Russian, going so far as to question American intelligence and last week’s federal indictments that accused 12 Russians of hacking into Democratic email accounts to hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
“He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Mr Trump said.
That is the part he corrected on Tuesday.
White House officials did not elaborate on how Mr Trump came to issue the clarification, but administration aides described being stunned by his initial remarks Monday.
Republican leaders, outraged by Mr Trump’s comments in Helsinki, found out about his attempts to quell the outrage the same way everyone else did, as one aide put it, by watching and learning.
After his walkback, Mr Trump said his administration would “move aggressively” to repel efforts to interfere in American elections.
“We are doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018,” he said. “And we have a lot of power.”