- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2018

President Trump attempted Tuesday to douse the political firestorm over his kid-glove treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Republican leaders were already preparing an end run around the White House with legislation to stop Moscow from meddling in U.S. elections again.

Mr. Trump reaffirmed his full faith in U.S. intelligence agencies and their conclusion that Moscow tampered with the 2016 presidential election. He insisted that he misspoke when he raised doubts about his views on the Russian cyberattack on the election while standing beside Mr. Putin after their meeting Monday in Helsinki.

He misspoke, the president said Tuesday, when he said in front of the microphones a day earlier that he “didn’t know why it would be” Russia that interfered.

What he meant to say, he said, was: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.”

The president also vowed to stop Russia or any other country from cyberattacks on this year’s midterm elections.

“Unlike previous administrations, my administration has and will continue to move aggressively to repeal [it], and we will stop it, we will repel it — any efforts to interfere in our elections,” he said. “We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018.”

The White House invited reporters into Mr. Trump’s meeting with Republican lawmakers in order for him to squelch the uproar.

Republican lawmakers and die-hard Trump supporters insisted that the president move quickly to repair the impression that he vouched for Mr. Putin’s denials.

Before Mr. Trump clarified his views, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, took a hard line against Russia election meddling.

“I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018,” Mr. McConnell told reporters at the Capitol.

He was considering bringing to the Senate floor legislation that would crack down on election cyberattacks. One bill, the Deter Act, would give the director of national security the power to trigger powerful sanctions within 10 days of determining that a foreign country was interfering in an election.

The bill was authored by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said he would consider legislating more sanctions on Russia.

“I understand the desire and need to have good relations,” he said. “But Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests and it does not share our values, and I think that should be made very, very clear.”

Republicans welcomed Mr. Trump’s revised statements.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said he was glad Mr. Trump corrected the record.

“I wish he had said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday,” he told Neil Cavuto on Fox Business Network.

Democrats, who have used the Russia investigation to question the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency, were not swayed by the clarifications.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the president’s clarification was an attempt to “squirm away from what he said yesterday.”

“It’s 24 hours too late, and in the wrong place. If the president can’t say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right and our intelligence agencies are right, it’s ineffective, and worse, another sign of weakness,” Mr. Schumer said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said, “The president’s walk-back creates more questions than answers, and the American people deserve to know whether the president really stands with the American people and our democracy.”

Earlier Tuesday, House Democrats attempted to pass a resolution in the condemning Mr. Trump for his Helsinki remarks. The Republican-led House ruled the measure out of order.

For the president’s base, his performance in Helsinki threatened to dent his image as a fearless bare-knuckle negotiator.

“It hurts his brand with his supporters,” said Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell, who predicted Mr. Trump would rebound. “He came in as a law-and-order guy, and in that respect that’s what he has to repair.”

Mr. Trump’s “why would it be Russia” comment was among several remarks at the post-summit press conference that triggered bipartisan blowback, including piercing criticism that the president sided with the former KGB spy chief against America’s intelligence community.

During the press conference, Mr. Trump seemed satisfied that Mr. Putin had offered him an “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian interference in American elections.

Days earlier, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team handed up indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking emails at the Democratic National Committee and at Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

In Helsinki, Mr. Trump was unable to separate Mr. Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling from his probe of Trump campaign collusion with Moscow.

On Tuesday, he repeated an assertion that the Obama administration turned a blind eye to Russia’s interference because they believed Mrs. Clinton would win the presidency.

He said he believed Russia was responsible but added that “others” could have been involved.

“I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies, always have,” Mr. Trump said. “I have felt very strongly that while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”

Mr. Trump repeatedly stressed that there was “no collusion.”

Declaring the meeting a success, Mr. Trump said he had made significant progress toward better U.S.-Russian relations and peace in the world.

“I thought that the meeting that I had with President Putin was really strong,” he said. “They were willing to do things that, frankly, I wasn’t sure whether or not they would be willing to do, and we’ll be having future meetings and we’ll see whether or not that comes to fruition.”

Dan Boylan contributed to this article.


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