Trump’s damage control falters

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE on Wednesday said Russia does not pose a threat to the United States, contradicting his director of national intelligence on a critical security issue and deepening a controversy that began at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was actually indicating he was done answering questions when he responded “no” to a reporter who asked if he believes Russia is still seeking to meddle in U.S. political affairs.

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“We believe that the threat still exists,” she said at the White House press briefing, the first in 16 days.

The president said later in an interview with CBS News that he holds Putin personally responsible for election meddling “because he’s in charge of the country.”

“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.

The president’s comments, and the White House’s attempt to clarify his previous remarks, added to a dizzying array of statements about Russia following a widely panned summit with Putin in the Finnish capital.

They also came a day after Trump acknowledged the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and pledged to prevent meddling in the November midterms.

But those remarks failed to quiet the uproar surrounding his public handling of Putin, so Trump went even further on Wednesday, stating that he’s been tougher than any other president when it comes to Russia.

“There has never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been,” Trump told reporters at the White House, citing U.S. sanctions on Moscow and the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats accused of being spies.

“I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media,” Trump said. “He understands it, and he’s not happy about it.”

When asked seconds later if Russia is “still targeting” the U.S., Trump said, “No.”

That comment undercut Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsGerman lawmaker, US ambassador to Germany trade jabs Intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to improve communication with Trump: report Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief MORE, who said after the Helsinki press conference that Russia’s hostile activities against the U.S. and its allies are “ongoing.”

Coats has also underscored intelligence agencies’ concerns that Russia is prepared to interfere with the midterm elections, saying in remarks last week the proverbial warning lights are “blinking red.”

“We have been clear in our assessment of Russian meddling in our 2016 elections and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said in a statement Monday.

Trump’s divergent comments about Russia’s actions toward the U.S. have deepened the divide with his advisers and raised doubts about his commitment to combating Moscow’s hostile activities, a top concern of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Sanders sought to assuage those fears at Wednesday’s press briefing by relaying a message from Trump.

“The president and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle in our elections, as they have done in the past,” Sanders said, adding that Trump “wouldn’t go through that lengthy process” if he did not believe Moscow is targeting U.S. elections.

She also said Trump “was saying ‘no’ to answering questions” and not the question posed by a reporter during a media availability at the Cabinet meeting.

The reporter who asked the question, Cecilia Vega of ABC News, disputed Sanders’s characterization of the exchange. She posted a transcript showing Trump said “Thank you very much” to her initial question about whether Russia is targeting the U.S., his typical indication he is done speaking, before answering “no.”

Vega then followed up by asking, “No, you don’t believe that to be the case?” Trump again replied: “No.”

The president ignored a follow-up question from Vega and then answered another reporter’s question.

“Yes, he was looking directly at me when he spoke,” Vega wrote on Twitter. “Yes, I believe he heard me clearly. He answered two of my questions.” 

Even though questions were raised about the White House’s denial, it was enough for some Republican lawmakers, including several who previously blasted the president for refusing to condemn Russia’s election meddling while standing next to Putin.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Comey, Rice, Clapper among GOP senator's targets for subpoenas amid Obama-era probe Schumer: GOP should 'stop sitting on their hands' on coronavirus bill MORE (R-S.C.) said he was reassured by Trump’s advisers that the president’s reply on Wednesday “was not intended to suggest that President Trump doubts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is continuing to attack our critical infrastructure in the 2018 elections.”

“I’m very pleased to hear this and I stand ready to work with the administration to harden our electoral system against all foreign interference, including Russia,” Graham said.

But many others have indicated they are not ready to move on, announcing plans to advance a set of actions designed to hold Russia accountable for potential future hostile acts.

Senate leaders indicated they plan to bring forward bipartisan legislation that would slap new sanctions on Moscow if U.S. intelligence agencies find they interfere in the 2018 midterm elections.

But Sanders sidestepped a question at the press briefing about whether Trump would support such a proposal, calling it “a hypothetical situation.”

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRomney is only GOP senator not on new White House coronavirus task force McConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is calling Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Government watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips Inspector general fired over leaks had been cleared of wrongdoing before ouster: report MORE to testify before his panel next week to discuss Trump’s meeting with Putin. 

Pompeo was reportedly one of several top administration officials who urged Trump to clarify the remarks he made at Monday’s joint press conference with Putin, when Trump gave equal weight to the Russian leader’s denial of election meddling to and the  conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.

“My people came to me ... they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said on Monday. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

The president’s comments set off international furor, which Trump sought to clean up on Tuesday by saying he misspoke and meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.”

Trump also said he accepts the intelligence agencies’ assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but he raised doubts about his sincerity by adding that it “could be other people.”