Scarcely more than 24 hours after his triumphant press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump walked back some of his criticism of American intelligence agencies. Trump’s comments had been rebuked by many Republicans and been ridiculed around the world.
During their joint press conference, President Trump answered a question about Russian hacking during the 2016 election, saying, “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the [hacked DNC] server. But I have — I have confidence in both parties.”
By Tuesday afternoon, President Trump was backtracking, saying that he “realized there is some need for clarification.”
"In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't,' " the President said, explaining that he had reviewed a transcript and video of his remarks.
"The sentence should have been: 'I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia,' " he said. "Sort of a double negative."
There are several problems with this explanation. First, the furor should have been immediately apparent to the presidential staff. It should not have taken 24 hours to make such a simple correction.
Just a few hours before the retraction, Trump tweeted that the meeting with Putin was “even better” than his “great meeting“ with NATO. Only the “Fake News” saw it differently, Trump said. If the problem was a simple misstatement, a quick tweet could have resolved the issue much earlier.
Second, the retraction fails to address the other equivocations from President Trump. In the same answer, Trump began by falsely claiming that the FBI had not examined the hacked servers from the DNC then compared Putin’s denial with the claims of US intelligence.
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question, Trump said. “My people came to me — [Director of National Intelligence] 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 then riffed on Hillary’s missing emails, saying again that Russia could probably find them before returning to the theme that Putin’s denial was as convincing as what he heard from US Intelligence.
“So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump continued. “And what he did is an incredible offer; he offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Trump claims that he misspoke on one phrase, but what he said was consistent, not only with the rest of the press conference, but also his message of the past few years. Trump has expressed admiration for Putin for years and has denied that he believes Russia was involved in hacking the election since 2016.
Finally, there was another tell that indicated Trump’s lack of sincerity. In another passage of his retraction, Trump added an unscripted remark that indicated what he really thought.
”I have a full faith and support for America's great intelligence agencies," Trump said. "I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place — could be other people also."
“Could be other people also."
With those weasel words at the end of the sentence, the president negated almost everything that had come before. The evidence points toward Russia. Either the president believes the evidence or he believes Vladmir Putin. Who he actually believes is obvious.
President Trump does not back down often. The only other instances that come easily to mind are his abortive flip-flop on gun control and a series of flips on immigration, most recently backing down on family separations. These instances show that the president has the political instinct to retreat from unpopular positions, especially when his base begins to crack. His Russian retraction seems to be another political retreat rather than any real reversal of opinion.
[Photo credit:Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia]