Republicans back Trump's claim he misspoke during Putin press conference
Several House Republicans said Wednesday they accepted President Donald Trump’s explanation that he misspoke at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said he saw no reason why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 election.
“I can’t speak for the president,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. “Obviously, the president clarified his comments. Those findings were clear and strong.”
Speaking to reporters alongside Putin in Helsinki Monday, Trump said he has confidence both in the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was responsible for efforts to meddle in the election and in Putin’s firm denial of responsibility. “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia,” he added.
Trump’s apparent support for Putin’s version of events coupled with his harsh attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference drew bipartisan criticism back home from lawmakers who expressed strong support for the work of U.S. intelligence agencies.
At the White House Tuesday, Trump claimed he had intended to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.” However, he also said others may have been involved in the interference as well.
Democrats dismissed Trump’s attempted walk back of his earlier comments.
“My sense is that he meant what he said when he said it at that press conference,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. “Now he’s even walking back from his walk back.”
Many Republicans were satisfied by his correction, though.
“The president clearly said he misspoke,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich. “I think we have to accept that for what it is. We don’t know what went on in a two-hour conversation between Putin and Trump, so we don’t know the context.”
Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, acknowledged Trump did not communicate clearly immediately after meeting with Putin, but he also argued that Trump, who is 18 months into his presidency, is not a professional politician.
“I believe him when he says he believes his intelligence sources,” Babin said.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., also saw no reason to doubt Trump’s sincerity.
“Knowing the president, knowing he doesn’t back down from his statements, when he comes out and says, ‘I misspoke, I meant to say wouldn’t instead of would,’ you’ve got to take him for face value,” he said. “I believe him.”
Mullin defended Trump’s initial performance, questioning how else he could have responded to Putin’s public denial and placing blame squarely on the reporter who he felt asked a “gotcha” question.
“That wasn’t an appropriate time for that question to be asked to the president,” he said. “There was no right answer he could have given.”
Other Republicans felt Tuesday’s clarification was not quite clear enough.
“I think the president’s press conference was not good, not good for him, not good for our country,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. “I’m glad the president came back yesterday to try to re-clarify some of his statements, but I think he needs to send a stronger message to Vladimir Putin.”
According to Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, the line Trump corrected was only one of several moments Monday when the president was unduly deferential to Putin.
“Whether he should have said the word ‘would’ or ‘wouldn’t,’ there’s more problems with that press conference than potentially the misuse of a word,” he said.
Hurd pointed to dubious claims Putin made about Iran, Ukraine and other issues that went unchallenged by Trump as well.
“Saying those things standing next to the U.S. president without the U.S. president combatting or correcting the record is going to have a long-term, lasting impact,” he said.
Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer, also lamented the apparent disconnect between Trump and his own intelligence agencies, though he added any perceived lack of support from the president will not hinder their work.
“The men and women of the intelligence community are going to do their job,” he said. “They know Russia is an adversary, that Russia is an enemy and they’re going to do everything to collect intelligence on them.”
GOP lawmakers stressed that, despite President Trump’s equivocation whenever pressed about Putin, the current administration has imposed stiff sanctions, expelled Russian spies, and taken other measures to challenge the Kremlin’s power.
“This administration has stood strong against Russia and Russia’s aggression, and I think the president could have done more to tell the American people that’s actually what’s happening,” Davis said.