HELSINKI, July 18 – US President Donald Trump tried on Tuesday to calm a storm over his failure to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for meddling in the 2016 US election, saying he misspoke in a joint news conference in Helsinki.
Trump stunned the world on Monday by shying away from criticising the Russian leader for Moscow’s actions to undermine the election and cast doubt on US intelligence agencies, prompting calls by some US lawmakers for tougher sanctions and other actions to punish Russia.
“I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” Trump told reporters at the White House, more than 24 hours after his appearance with Putin. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after his news conference with Putin found that 55 percent of registered US voters disapproved of his handling of relations with Russia, while 37 percent approved.
Trump, who had the opportunity to publicly rebuke Putin during the news conference in Helsinki, instead praised the Russian leader for his “strong and powerful” denial of the conclusions of US intelligence agencies that the Russian state meddled in the election.
Standing alongside Putin in Helsinki, Trump told reporters he was not convinced it was Moscow. “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said.
Although he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Trump said not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two nuclear powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Republicans and Democrats accused him of siding with an adversary rather than his own country.
Despite a televised interview and numerous postings to Twitter, Trump did not correct himself until 27 hours later. Reading mainly from a prepared statement, Trump said on Tuesday he had complete faith in US intelligence agencies and accepted their conclusions.
He then veered from his script to hedge on who was responsible for the election interference: “It could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
His backtracking failed to quell the controversy. Democrats dismissed Trump’s statement as political damage control.
“This has to be recognised for what it is, which is simply an effort to clean up the mess he made yesterday, which is beyond the capacity of any short statement to repair,” said Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (photo) said Trump’s comments on Tuesday were another sign of weakness, particularly his statement that it “could be other people” responsible for the election meddling.