Amid intense controversy following his summit in Helsinki with the Russian leader where he was accused of failing to press him over Moscow’s attempts to interfere in the presidential race and undermining US intelligence, Mr Trump embarked on the latest in a series of attempts at damage limitation.
Having said on Tuesday he had “misspoke” in Helsinki when he said he saw no reason Russia would have interfered in the election, on Wednesday in an interview the president said he did indeed agree with the conclusion of four US intelligence agencies that Moscow sought to influence the outcome of White House battle. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders also said Mr Trump had been misunderstood when he appeared to say he thought Russia no longer represented a cyber threat.
Since he entered the White House in January, Mr Trump has on a handful of occasions, seemingly grudgingly acknowledged the belief of his top intelligence officials that Russia interfered in 2016. Asked about the issue at a press conference in Poland in July 2017, he said: “Well, I think it was Russia and I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been [that] a lot of people interfered … Nobody really knows for sure.”
As such, his remarks in an interview with CBS represented his toughest comments yet about Russia and Mr Putin. In the interview, he claimed he had told Mr Putin in “very strong” terms the US would not tolerate any repeat of such efforts.
“I let him know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said.
Asked about whether he held Mr Putin personally responsible, he said: “I would because he’s in charge of the country just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country.”
He added; “So certainly as the leader of the country you would have to hold him responsible.”
Mr Trump’s remarks came amid mounting pressure to try and make right on what was widely seen as a damaging summit with Mr Putin in Finland. where the Russian leader again denied that his country had sought to interfere in the election.
When Mr Trump appeared to suggest he trusted the comments of Mr Putin as much as he did his own intelligence officials, the president triggered outrage among Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
While most Republicans voiced their anger in private, some critics such as Senators John McCain, who has cancer, and Jeff Flake, who is leaving Capitol Hill, spoke out in strident terms. Mr McCain said Mr Trump’s press conference with the Russian leader was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.
On returning to Washington, Mr Trump sought to smooth over the matter, telling reporters ahead of a cabinet meeting that he had “misspoke” in Helsinki, a claim that raised eyebrows among many commentators.
“In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,” the president said. “The sentence should have been: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.”
Embellishing his written notes, Mr Trump added: “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. It could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Trump had triggered more headlines when he appeared to say Russia was no longer targeting the US. His comments came just days after a senior intelligence official said said the cyberattack threat from Moscow was “blinking red”.
Asked by reporters if Russia was still targeting the country, Mr Trump gave a brief shake of his head, and said “no”. His comments were in stark contrast to the assessment of one of his top intelligence officials.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats last week raised what he said was the growing threat of cyberattacks against the United States, saying the situation is at a “critical point” and coming out forcefully against Russia.
“The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point,” said Mr Coats said, addressing the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said she spoke with Mr Trump about his answer earlier during the cabinet meeting, said the president had once again not communicated clearly enough.
She said he was declining to answer shouted questions when he said “no” to a question about Russia’s current efforts.
“The president said thank you very much and said no to answering questions,” she said. In an indication, the White House still considers Russia a threat, she added: “The president and his administration are working very hard to make sure Russia is unable to meddling in our elections.”
Mr Trump’s comments come as Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into Russia’s alleged effort to interfere in the election in favour of Mr Trump and possible collision with the Trump campaign, something the president has repeatedly denied. Mr Mueller has now brought indictments about more than two dozen Russians for their alleged role in 2016’s interference
In his CBS interview, Mr Trump said he had told Mr Putin that efforts at interfering in the US political process had to end.
Asked what he had said to the Russian leader, Mr Trump said: “Very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that – now look. We’re also living in a grown-up world.”
He added: “Will a strong statement – you know – President Obama supposedly made a strong statement – nobody heard it. What they did hear is a statement he made to Putin’s very close friend. And that statement was not acceptable.”
Mr Trump said Mr Obama’s statement – presumably a reference to his predecessor’ 2012 hot-mic comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in dealing with Moscow after the election – was not acceptable.
He added: But I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”