US President Donald Trump on Wednesday went further than before to say that he holds Russian premier Vladimir Putin personally responsible for meddling in the 2016 election, asserting that he had told him during the Helsinki meeting that “we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it”.
These remarks came in an interview to CBS News even as his aides were putting out another fire, clarifying that Trump hadn’t said that Russia was not targeting the United States anymore. He appeared to have said earlier in the day that it had stopped, a position that directly contradicted American intelligence head Dan Coats’s contention that the Russian threat was “ongoing”.
Trump continues to face questions about the Helsinki news conference with Putin on Monday, and has been forced to walk back its most controversial moment where he apparently sided with the Russian president against the findings of his own intelligence agencies on poll interference. He issued a reaction affirming “full faith” in the agencies and their findings on Tuesday.
To a question about that assessment, the president told the CBS News interviewer: “I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
Trump then went further than before. Asked if he would hold Putin personally responsible, he said, “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself responsible for things that happen in this country.”
So what did he say to Putin about it, then? “Very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that,” Trump said. “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.”
The president has never specifically blamed or condemned his Russian counterpart for poll interference and has instead sought to convey an abiding desire to work with him, insisting it was time the two leaders and their countries worked together to tackle key global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, Syria and North Korea.
Even now, it’s vicarious responsibility that Trump is laying at Putin’s doorstep, not direct blame that most Americans – including Republicans – wanted to see him do at the news conference. He, instead, chose to side with Putin, preferring to go with his “strong” denial to Coats’s assessment that Russia had indeed interfered in the 2016 election.
Newt Gingrich, a staunch Republican ally whose wife Clarissa Gingrich is Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican, called the Helsinki news conference the “most serious mistake” of the Trump presidency. Other Republicans termed it as “disgraceful”, “embarrassing” and “shameful”.
Former CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, called it “treasonous”.
The administration went into damage control even before the Air Force touched down Monday night. The next day, Trump told reporters he had misspoken. He has “full faith” in US intelligence agencies, he went on to say, and that he accepted their findings that Russia had meddled in the elections.
As his rare retraction — Trump is not known to own up mistakes — became the new narrative, the president added a new wrinkle in an unscripted interaction with reporters. Ahead of a cabinet meeting Wednesday, he seemed to have answered in the negative — “No” — to a question if he believed Russia was still targeting the United States. Coats, his director of National Intelligence, had said Russian meddling is ongoing.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later clarified that the president had said “No” to taking questions, and not the one about continued Russian interference. She went on to add that the Trump regime believed the interference was ongoing, and it was doing more than previous administrations to stop it.