Flying home Monday after the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump and his senior aides recognized that he had made a mistake that risked lasting damage and needed to be fixed quickly, people familiar with the matter said.
Playing on a loop on television was footage of the president standing next to Mr. Putin, casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and aligning himself with Moscow’s denial of any meddling.
Mr. Trump, aboard Air Force One, spoke to his staff about how best to correct what they knew was a miscue, and the discussions continued with staff meetings Tuesday morning in Washington. Aides considered various responses and passed them back and forth, culminating in Mr. Trump’s afternoon announcement in the Cabinet Room that he had misspoken, a person familiar with the matter said.
What he meant to say, he told reporters, was: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” that had intruded in the U.S. election and not what he actually said: “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.”
So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!
The rare admission of error on Mr. Trump’s part came after bipartisan criticism of his remarks, which some of his closest allies have said could weaken his presidency and other Republicans feared would drive away voters in the November midterms.
It isn’t clear whether Mr. Trump’s statement will quell the backlash. The White House found itself under scrutiny again Wednesday when Mr. Trump, at a cabinet meeting, appeared to say that he didn’t believe Russia was trying to influence this year’s midterms.
After remarks to reporters at the White House later Wednesday, amid shouting as the press was being escorted out, Mr. Trump was asked whether he believes Russia is still targeting the U.S. He said: “Thank you very much. No.”
His own top security advisers have described Russia’s efforts this year as “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Later Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Mr. Trump wasn’t addressing the Russia question when he said “no.” Rather, he was saying “no” to answering further questions, Ms. Sanders said. But Mr. Trump did continue to answer questions.
Asked about criticism from Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that the president was being insincere about his position on Russia, Mr. Trump responded that, “We’re doing very well—probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia.”
The focus on what the president did, or didn’t say, has consumed much of the White House since Mr. Trump returned to Washington on Monday, and has delayed some of the briefings for administration officials on the Putin summit, according to people familiar with the scheduling.
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In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, Mr. Trump was asked if he would hold Mr. Putin responsible for election meddling.
“Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country,” Mr. Trump said. “Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country.”
At the Defense Department, at least three aides who would be part of any policy change to come out of the private one-on-one meeting between Messrs. Trump and Putin said Tuesday they hadn’t been briefed on the two hours the two leaders spent alone.
On the flight home from Helsinki, with Mr. Trump telling aides he wanted to come out with a new statement, John Bolton, his national security adviser, wrote up a list of points that needed to be made quickly and passed them to White House aides, a person familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Bolton noted that president should make clear that he had always backed the U.S. intelligence community, that Russian or any foreign meddling wouldn’t be tolerated, that interference in U.S. elections wouldn’t happen in the midterm elections and that there hadn’t been any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.
While the NATO meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success. Many positive things will come out of that meeting..
Bill Shine, the newly minted deputy chief of staff for communications and a former Fox News executive, voiced concern that the White House needed to provide a new TV image so that networks would stop broadcasting images of Mr. Trump’s news conference in Helsinki, a person familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Trump would heed that advice, making a televised statement from the Cabinet Room during a meeting with lawmakers that was originally supposed to be closed to the press. Mr. Shine didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, suggested that the president was being treated unfairly by the media. She reminded him that former President Barack Obama should have done more to expose and punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections, a White House official said.
She urged him to talk about the administration’s record on Russia, including sanctions and the dozens of Russian national officials who were expelled this year.
Mr. Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence emphasized the importance of reassuring the intelligence community.
One concern among Trump allies was that Mr. Trump’s comments in Helsinki, in which he put the intelligence community’s assertion of Russian meddling on a par with Mr. Putin’s denials, could alienate Republican voters and the broader electorate.
In the statement, Mr. Trump said he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, adding “I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies.”