President Donald Trump said Wednesday he holds Russian leader Vladimir Putin personally responsible for interference in the November 2016 presidential vote, after days of bipartisan anger in Washington for his failure to publicly confront the Russian president Putin over the election interference.
Trump said he told Putin during their summit in Helsinki this week that the United States would not tolerate meddling in US elections.
“I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Trump said in an interview with CBS.
Asked if he held Putin personally responsible for interference in the presidential vote, Trump replied: “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country, just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country.”
Trump said he had been “very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that.”
Trump has also appeared on several occasions to question the US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 vote in a bid to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
He did this in Helsinki, too, and executed a convoluted walkback of those remarks on Tuesday, saying he misspoke in Finland.
Again on Wednesday, he told CBS he agreed with those US findings.
“Yeah and I’ve said that before,” he said. “I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
A few hours earlier, Trump had answered “no” when asked if the longtime US foe was still targeting American elections. That reply put the president sharply at odds with recent public warnings from his own intelligence chief, but the White House quickly stepped in to say his answer wasn’t what it appeared.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats had sounded an alarm, comparing the cyberthreat today to how the way US officials said before 9/11 that intelligence channels were “blinking red” with warning signs that a terror attack was imminent.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump actually was saying “no” to answering additional questions — even though he subsequently went on to address Russia.
She said the threat to the US electoral system “still exists, which is why we are taking steps to prevent it.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump claimed that no US president has been as “tough” as him on Russia.
“We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting at the White House. “Look at what we’ve done. Look at sanctions.
“And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody,” Trump said. “He understands it, and he’s not happy about it.
“And he shouldn’t be happy about it because there’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.”
Subpoena for interpreter
Democrats and some members of Trump’s own Republican Party have criticized him for accepting at face value Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the vote.
Democratic lawmakers meanwhile pushed for Congress to subpoena Trump’s summit interpreter to find out what transpired during his private meeting with Putin.
The two leaders held two hours of closed-door talks with no one else present but the interpreters.
Democrats say the woman who translated for Trump — and the notes she likely took — could provide critical information about the meeting.
“We want the interpreter to come before the committee. We want to see the notes,” Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC.
“We’re going to have a massive effort to try to get to what happened.”
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican who chairs the committee, said he understands the request and was “looking into precedent” to see if it was viable.
The White House is likely to block the move, arguing that the president is not required to reveal private conversations and that an aide, such as a translator, should not be compelled to do so.
Asked if a recording of the meeting existed, Sanders said: “I’m not aware of one.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to insist that the summit had been a success, citing the “many positive things” he expects to come from the meeting.
“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,” Trump tweeted.
Faced with outrage at home, Trump said Tuesday that he accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had meddled in the election.
He also offered a twisted explanation of his assertion in Helsinki that he could not see “any reason” why Russia would interfere, claiming he misspoke.
“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’,” Trump said.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” he added.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign has increasingly put pressure on the White House.
The president has dubbed it a “witch hunt,” and repeatedly denied any collusion.
But the investigation is progressing, as evidenced by the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents on Friday — timing that was embarrassing ahead of the summit.