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Under fire, Trump backtracks on dismissal of Russian meddling

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump responded Tuesday to bipartisan condemnation of his dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings and “clarified” his comments to say he accepted conclusions that Russians meddled in the presidential election.

Trump’s comments at the White House were in stark contrast to his statements at a Helsinki, Finland, news conference Monday where he accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of interference in the 2016 election.

Republican and Democratic leaders were scathing in their criticism of Trump’s embrace of the Russian president, the undermining of U.S. intelligence, and his attack on a special counsel investigation to determine whether the Trump campaign colluded with the meddling to sway the election.

Trump criticized the media for its characterization of his performance at the summit with Putin, but he backtracked on his Helsinki comments that sparked outrage across the political spectrum and prompted his close supporters to call it the largest mistake of his presidency.

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,’’ Trump said, but with the caveat that it “could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there.”

Trump also offered that “there was no collusion at all.”

The initial bombshell comments by Trump followed a week of insults hurled at NATO allies who have worked with the United States to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea and military action in the Ukraine and Syria.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump’s comments defending Putin “shameful.”

Intelligence agencies defended

Other GOP leaders immediately defended U.S. intelligence agencies and dismissed the president’s assertion of a moral equivalency for adversarial relations between the two nations.

“Russia did meddle with our elections. What we intend to do is make sure they don’t get away with it again,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought to reassure NATO allies and our “European friends” that “we understand the Russian threat.”

Ryan and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Congress could take up legislation that would increase economic sanctions on Russia for cyberattacks on the electoral system and military actions.

But most Republicans, while quick to defend U.S. intelligence and voice disdain for Putin, were measured in their criticism of Trump, who has been actively involved in primary politics and whose regulatory rollbacks and tax policy they embrace.

“While I am not opposed to a dialogue between the two leaders, I trust our intelligence community’s assessment on Russian interference, not Vladimir Putin’s. He is no friend of the United States and I don’t trust him,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., in a statement.

Trump has raised money for Heller and nudged would-be opponent Danny Tarkanian out of a GOP primary race. Heller faces a tough re-election battle and is considered the most vulnerable GOP senator defending a seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., who is challenging Heller, said “President Trump’s weak, embarrassing performance at the Helsinki Summit highlights again how far he’ll go to let Vladimir Putin walk all over our democracy.”

Dumbfounded pundits

Network and cable broadcasts were laden with dumbfounded correspondents and pundits who were shocked at Trump who appeared to kowtow to the Russian leader, a former KGB official criticized for human rights abuses and suppression of political opposition.

Even cable networks sympathetic to Trump saw the president’s appearance as unpatriotic.

“It’s a sad day when the criticism of Fox & Friends is the only thing that can get this president to admit shame,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. “America deserves better than the willful ignorance and cowed weakness of this president.”

Nevada Democrats in the House, Dina Titus and Ruben Kihuen, were quick to condemn Trump immediately after the summit. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., supports the special counsel investigation into the election meddling and sanctions against Russia, his spokeswoman said.

Democrats in the House and Senate moved quickly to force Republicans to act on the president’s debacle and national embarrassment.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a congressional hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to learn what was discussed between Trump and Putin in a private meeting.

Democrats also pushed for protections for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

‘24 hours too late’

Trump’s clarification was “24 hours too late and in the wrong place,” said Schumer, who joined Democratic and Republican colleagues in the Senate who criticized Trump for breaking with protocol and criticizing U.S. institutions and leaders in a foreign setting.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump made a conscious decision to defend a tyrant in “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who testified before Congress earlier this month on the threat of Russian meddling in the 2018 election, broke with the president after the initial comments in Helsinki and issued a statement supporting his intelligence assessments.

Even with the uproar over his initial comments, Trump in his clarification continued to point blame at former President Barack Obama for failing to take action on information of meddling before the election.

“They didn’t think it was a big deal,” Trump charged.

Obama and Democrats warned of Russian meddling in the months prior to the election and following the hacking of Democratic National Committee computer servers and files that were published on Wikileaks.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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