The White House struggled on Wednesday to contain the furor over President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denying that Trump ever meant to say that Moscow was no longer targeting the United States.
Trump, facing a political uproar over his failure to confront Putin over Russia’s 2016 U.S. election meddling, adopted a defiant posture two days after their Helsinki summit and lashed out at his critics.
Asked by a journalist before a morning Cabinet meeting at the White House whether Russia was still targeting the United States, Trump looked at the reporter, shook his head and said, “No.”
At a later briefing, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the president was saying “no” to answering questions, not to the question itself.
American intelligence officials have said that Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. elections are continuing and now target the Nov. 6 congressional races. Sanders said that Trump believes that the threat from Russia to undermine the midterm elections still exists.
“The president has made clear to Vladimir Putin that he should stay out of U.S. elections,” Sanders said. “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.”
It was the second time since Monday’s summit that Trump and the White House have blamed a misstatement or misunderstanding for the furor over Russia.
On Tuesday, Trump said he misspoke at a Helsinki news conference with Putin and that he accepted intelligence agency conclusions about Russian election meddling, although he hedged by deviating from his prepared notes to say “it could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
“We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia,” Trump said before the Cabinet meeting, adding that Putin “understands it and he’s not happy about it.”
In a series of early morning Twitter posts, the Republican president said the summit would eventually produce “big results” and accused his critics of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
“Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!” the president wrote.
In his morning tweets, Trump said he elicited a promise from Putin during their meeting to help negotiations with North Korea, but did not say how.