By Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump on Tuesday tried to calm a storm for failing to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for his meddling in the 2016 US elections, saying he had made a mistake in a joint press conference. in Helsinki.
Trump surprised the world on Monday by avoiding criticizing the Russian leader for Moscow’s actions to undermine the elections and casting doubt on US intelligence agencies, prompting some US lawmakers to call for tougher sanctions and other actions to punish Russia.
“I said the word ‘would’ rather than ‘would not,'” Trump told reporters at the White House, more than 24 hours after his appearance with Putin. “The phrase should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’
A Reuters / Ipsos poll conducted after his press conference with Putin found that 55 percent of registered American voters disapprove of his handling of relations with Russia, while 37 percent approved of it.
Trump, who had the opportunity to publicly berate Putin during the press conference in Helsinki, instead praised the Russian leader for his “strong and powerful” denial of the US intelligence agencies’ conclusions that the Russian state meddled in the elections.
Along with Putin in Helsinki, Trump told reporters that he was not convinced it was Moscow. “I don’t see any reason why that would be,” Trump said.
Although he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a hard line, Trump did not say a single derogatory word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have driven relations between the two. nuclear powers to their lowest point since then. The Cold War.
Republicans and Democrats accused him of siding with an adversary rather than his own country.
Despite a televised interview and numerous posts on Twitter, Trump didn’t correct himself until 27 hours later. Reading primarily from a prepared statement, Trump said Tuesday that he had complete faith in US intelligence agencies and accepted their conclusions.
Then he deviated from his script to talk about who was responsible for the electoral interference: “It could also be other people. There are a lot of people out there.”
His backlash failed to quell the controversy. Democrats rejected Trump’s declaration as a political damage control.
“This has to be recognized for what it is, which is simply an effort to clean up the mess it made yesterday, which is beyond the ability to repair any short statement,” said Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat at the House of Representatives. Intelligence Committee.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s comments Tuesday were another sign of weakness, in particular his statement that “it could be other people” responsible for the election meddling.
“He made a horrible statement, tried to back down, but he didn’t even dare to back down,” Schumer said in the Senate. “It shows the weakness of President Trump who is afraid to directly confront Putin.”
The political storm over Trump’s performance in Helsinki
It has engulfed the administration and spread to fellow Republicans, overshadowing most of the frequent controversies that have erupted during Trump’s turbulent 18 months in office.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that Russia was not a friend of the United States and warned against a repeat of electoral meddling in the November congressional elections.
“There are many of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it is better that it does not happen again in 2018,” McConnell said.
Some lawmakers said they would seek remedies against Russia in Congress.
Several senators from both parties backed tougher sanctions against Russia. McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia’s government “threatening,” said their chambers could consider additional sanctions against Russia.
Last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a sanctions law against Moscow for electoral interference. In April, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs in one of Washington’s most aggressive moves to punish Moscow.
Even before allegations of Russian meddling, tensions were high over Moscow’s concerns over NATO expansion, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and its military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Some US lawmakers have suggested passing resolutions expressing support for intelligence agencies or spending more to improve electoral security and prevent cyberattacks.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said congressional leaders were looking for the most effective response.
“We are trying to figure out what would be an appropriate way to roll back,” Corker told reporters. “You know the president can do more damage in 15 minutes at a press conference than we can undo in six months of passing resolutions.”
Corker said that “the first step” would be to hear from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Wednesday.
Senate Democrats said they wanted the American interpreter at the Helsinki meeting to testify before Congress about what was said during the private Trump-Putin session.
US intelligence agencies concluded last year that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election campaign and sought to tip the vote in favor of Trump, which Moscow has denied. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating that allegation and any possible Trump campaign collusion.
Trump has denied collusion and calls the Mueller investigation a witch hunt aimed at detracting from his election victory.
Not all Republicans were angry at Trump’s conduct in Helsinki. “The president did a good thing by meeting Putin,” Senator Rand Paul told CBS’s “This Morning,” comments that earned him public thanks from Trump on Twitter.
Russia’s political and media establishment heralded the summit as a Putin victory by breaking Western determination to treat Russia as an outcast.
“The West’s attempts to isolate Russia failed,” read the headline of the state newspaper Rossiisskaya Gazeta.