Trump Yields to Pressure in Delayed Retreat From Putin Remarks

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump was still dug in, unwilling to back down a day after siding with Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies in accepting the Russian leader’s denial of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

That changed after a meeting between the president and Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

After Pompeo and Pence intervened, Trump chose to issue a public clarification of remarks he made at the Helsinki summit, which had ignited a firestorm of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

Even then, he would only go so far, saying he misspoke with a single word, and that he accepted the U.S. intelligence finding of Russian meddling in the election. He then immediately undercut that account, looking up from a prepared text to add, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

On Wednesday, Trump was on Twitter early, promising “many positive things” will result from the meeting with Putin.

"So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki," Trump tweeted, adding that he and Putin "got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!"

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s retreat will be enough to quell the most intense backlash from Republicans against anything he has done in office. GOP leaders who looked past his recorded remarks about grabbing women and his refusal to denounce neo-Nazi protesters, or complained but took no substantive action when he imposed tariffs on allies, were aghast at an American president appearing to take the side of a Russian leader against his own intelligence agencies.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a staunch Trump backer whose wife Callista was named U.S. ambassador to the Vatican by Trump, on Monday called it “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said early on Tuesday “the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”

Midterms in Mind

But Republican elected officials have been wary of criticizing Trump and alienating his supporters as midterm elections approach. A wave of GOP criticism Monday and Tuesday morning ebbed after Trump’s comments, made at an afternoon meeting with lawmakers.

Despite the clarification, Trump didn’t retreat from savaging Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling as he stood alongside Putin. He also didn’t back down from comments blaming U.S. “foolishness and stupidity” for the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow.

And it not stop him from more self-congratulation. “The meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!” he tweeted Tuesday evening.

Trump told reporters that he misspoke in an answer at the news conference in Helsinki.

In Helsinki Trump had said, referring to his director of national intelligence, “My people came to me -- Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Double Negative

On Tuesday, he said he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.

“The sentence should’ve been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” Trump said Tuesday. “I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

He didn’t retract other statements at the Helsinki press conference that cast doubt on the intelligence agencies’ conclusions.

Trump on Monday had drawn an equivalence between the U.S. findings and the Russian leader’s denial, saying “I have confidence in both parties.” And he bolstered the Russian’s leader’s position, saying “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

“I came back and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?”’ Trump said Tuesday. “So I got a transcript I reviewed. I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave, and I realized that there is a need for some clarification.”

‘Accept’ U.S. Findings

“I’ve said this many times,” Trump added on Tuesday. “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York blasted Trump’s clarification as a tardy attempt to “squirm away” from responsibility for his comments.

“It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place,” Schumer said in a statement emailed to reporters. “If the president can’t say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right and our intelligence agencies are right, it’s ineffective, and worse, another sign of weakness.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier Tuesday that he wouldn’t critique Trump’s appearance with Putin. But he said there’s broad understanding in both parties about the threat posed by Russia and warned of more sanctions if the Kremlin attempts to meddle in any future election, including the November midterms.

“The Russians need to know there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016,” the Kentucky Republican said at the Capitol. “It better not happen again in 2018.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.