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.
“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.’”
Trump, who was given numerous opportunities 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.
Mainly reading from a prepared statement, Trump on Tuesday said he had complete faith in US intelligence agencies and accepted their conclusions.
But he appeared to veer from his script to also hedge on who was responsible for the election interference.
“It could be other people also – there’s a lot of people out there,” he said.
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 ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
The political firestorm over his performance in Helsinki has engulfed the administration and spread to his fellow Republicans, eclipsing most of the frequent controversies that have erupted during Trump’s turbulent 18 months in office.
Several senators from both parties backed tougher sanctions on Russia. McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia’s government “menacing,” said their chambers could consider additional sanctions on Russia.
US intelligence agencies concluded last year that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election campaign and sought to tilt the vote in Trump’s favour, which Moscow has denied.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating that allegation and any possible collusion by Trump’s campaign.
Trump has denied collusion and casts Mueller’s probe as a witchhunt that aims to detract from his election victory.
Russia’s political and media establishment heralded the summit as a victory for Putin in breaking down Western resolve to treat Russia as a pariah.
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