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Trump Corrects Summit Remark About Believing Putin on Election Meddling

President Trump during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House on July 17, 2018 in Washington. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — President Trump today walked back one of his remarks made during Monday’s Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a scripted correction drafted with the help of national security principals at an unscheduled White House meeting amid fallout from the majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill.

At the Putin presser, Trump was asked, “Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did… Who do you believe?”

Trump responded that “all I can do is ask the question.”

“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,” Trump continued. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be…I have confidence in both parties.”

Coats, the director of National Intelligence, issued a statement shortly afterward noting that “the role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers.”

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats added.

Trump arrived home from Finland last night. At an afternoon meeting with members of Congress in the Cabinet Room of the White House, reporters were called in to hear Trump read his statement.

“I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies, always have. And I have felt very strongly that while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times, I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said. “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all, and people have seen that and they’ve seen that strongly. The House has already come out very strongly on that, a lot of people have come out strongly on that.”

“I thought that I made myself very clear by having just reviewed the transcript. Now I have to say, I came back and I said what is going on, what’s the big deal? So I got a transcript, I reviewed it — I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave,” he added.

“And I realized that there is a need for some clarification. It should’ve been obvious, I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify just in case I wasn’t. And a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ So just to repeat it, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’ and the sentence should have been — and I thought I would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself. I have on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections.”

A pool photographer captured the phrase “there was no colusion [sic]” added as a handwritten felt-tip-pen note on one of the typed pages of the statement. A line was also drawn through a vow to bring “anyone involved in that meddling to justice.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reacted afterward on the floor of the upper chamber, stating that “even in his completely implausible effort to ‘correct’ his words, he departed from his text again to claim that the hacking could have been done by someone other than Russia.”

“If the president can’t say directly to President Putin that ‘Mr. Putin you are wrong and we are right, and our intelligence agencies are right’, it’s ineffective and worse, it shows so much weakness. It tells President Putin ‘continue to take advantage of the United States’ because President Trump doesn’t have the courage, the strength, maybe not even the conviction to say to Putin’s face what he tried to say a few minutes ago,” Schumer added. “The president’s comments a moment ago change very little.”

Schumer said lawmakers should ratchet up sanctions on Russia, get public testimony from U.S. officials who were in Helsinki — including Ambassador Jon Huntsman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and demand to see notes from the two-hour one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin. “What did President [Trump] agree to? Can we have the translator come in and testify?… The notes need to be turned over to Congress immediately,” he said.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared, “We believe the European Union countries are our friends, and the Russians are not.”

“So make no mistake about it, I would say to our friends in Europe we understand the Russian threat and I think that is the widespread view here in the United States Senate among members of both parties,” he added.

Asked about potential legislative action to push back on Russia, McConnell said there were “some possibilities.”

“Senator Rubio, for example, has got a bill that targets the 2018 election, the cycle we’re right in now with, as I understand it, potential penalties if the Russians do it again,” he said. “So yeah, there’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this. In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018.”

McConnell also called an effort by some House conservatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “pretty far-fetched and probably not worthy of comment.”