A day after he sounded almost indistinguishable from a Russian propaganda outlet, President Trump tried to walk back his comments supporting Vladimir Putin’s contention that Russia had not interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election. “I’m with our [intelligence] agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership,” Trump insisted in Vietnam on Sunday.
Aboard Air Force One on Saturday, Trump explained to reporters that President Putin had once again denied that Russia meddled in the election when the two chatted on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “He says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. He added that Putin seemed “insulted” by the accusations and that the meddling allegations were an “artificial Democratic hit job” that made it difficult for the U.S. to have a good relationship with Russia, which would be a “great, great thing.”
Trump also took the opportunity to denigrate the Obama administration intelligence officials who concluded that Russia had worked to interfere in the election. Calling them “political hacks,” he went so far as to suggest that their official assessments on the matter should be compared to Putin’s “very strong” statements of denial. Trump ultimately seemed to have concluded that, as Putin has maintained numerous times, the entire issue is a meaningless distraction preventing the U.S. and Russia from having the close relationship they deserve.
Trump dodged a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denials, though the rest of his comments made it pretty clear that he did, or at least wanted to. Either way, there wasn’t much room to misinterpret Trump’s remarks.
Later Saturday, the CIA released a statement making it clear that Director Mike Pompeo disagreed with Trump and Putin’s assessment. Trump’s comments drew plenty of well-deserved scorn and criticism from others, too. Senator John McCain’s response referred to Putin’s former profession: “There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” he said. Elsewhere, media outlets struggled to frame their reports on the remarks based on what Trump could have meant when he said he believed that Putin “means” his denials, but again: Either Trump is incapable of using words to communicate ideas or he indicated that he backed Putin’s claims of innocence on Saturday.
At a short press conference with Vietnamese president Trần Đại Quang on Sunday in Danang, Trump was given another shot to sound off on the subject. This time, he seems to have been prepped to provide a new, less controversial answer. Taking questions from his press pool, Trump called first on Fox News’ John Roberts, who proceeded to explain to Trump how his Saturday remarks about Putin had been interpreted (or in Roberts’s mind, misinterpreted) back home. Roberts then asked Trump, “If you could, once and for all, definitively, yes or no, say whether or not you believe that President Putin, and/or Russia, interfered in the election?”
Trump’s characteristically inarticulate response was hardly a definitive “yes or no” answer:
What I said — and I’m surprised there’s any conflict on this — what I said there is that I believe he believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies — especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies — I’ve worked with them very strongly.
Then, in the middle of saying he stands with America’s intel agencies, Trump recycled one of the talking points he has used in the past to downplay the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s meddling. Press reports initially indicated that 17 federal agencies had made the assessment, when in fact, it was only the four main intelligence agencies: the FBI, CIA, NSA, and ODNI. Trump has liked to refer to this as a way to cast doubt on the assessment, when the error wasn’t actually relevant to its credibility. On Sunday, the president simply couldn’t resist bringing it up again, noting the discrepancy twice.
Trump also elaborated on why he now trusts U.S. intelligence officials — because they are now members of his own administration instead of President Obama’s. “As currently led by fine people,” Trump emphasized, “I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
Trump went on to reiterate that he thinks “it’s very important to get along with Russia” and other countries “because we have a lot of things we want to solve” like the North Korea crisis. To that end, he claimed that he didn’t want to get into a public argument with Putin at the summit with the press around (though Trump’s traveling press pool was barred from attending the APEC summit). Then, as on Saturday, Trump insisted that everyone has suffered enough and it’s time to move on from the Russian meddling story (which is what Putin has been saying all along):
I think it was very obvious to everybody. I believe that President Putin really feels, and he feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election. What he believes is what he believes. What I believe is we have to get to work [to solve international problems together] … People don’t realize, Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned. They were sanctioned at a very high level. And that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.
Trump then proceeded to reemphasize how important it was to have a good relationship with Russia, and criticized Hillary Clinton and President Obama for failing to rekindle the relationship — ideas he also took to Twitter on Sunday:
On the Sunday morning political shows in the U.S., Trump’s surrogates were on the same page. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin oddly claimed that “nobody thinks [Russia’s meddling] has had any impact on the election. So whatever occurred, there was no impact. So I think the American public is ready to move on to more important issues: tax reform and foreign policy and national security.” On ABC’s This Week, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway added that “the president is not the chairman of the Board of Elections in this country, he’s the president of the United States.”
Whatever Trump considers his job to entail in addition to interpreting Putin’s feelings, more than a year after his election, the president is clearly still unable to fully acknowledge Russia’s attempts to influence the election for his benefit. Even when he tries, like on Sunday, there’s always an aside to sow doubt or an attempt to change the subject. Put another way, at this point, it’s impossible to really believe that when Trump tells us he agrees that Russia interfered, he means it.