US President Donald Trump. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM
US President Donald Trump. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM

New York — US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he accepted the conclusion by US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the US presidential election, marking a rare retreat from comments just a day earlier amid a backlash from Republicans.

But even with a prepared statement in hand, he introduced doubt, saying that the meddling in the 2016 election "could be other people also".

Trump came under a torrent of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for statements at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki Monday casting doubt on the US findings — denied by Putin — that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

Trump cast his reversal Tuesday narrowly. Though he said he accepts the intelligence findings that Russia intervened in the presidential campaign, he didn’t retreat from lengthy comments while standing beside Putin savaging Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s election meddling. Nor did Trump back down from comments blaming US "foolishness and stupidity" for the deterioration of relations with Putin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, incursions into Ukraine, backing for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war and nerve-agent poisoning of four people in the UK.

One word

Trump made his clarification to reporters on Tuesday at the White House more than 24 hours after an extraordinary press conference that raised immediate controversy. He had not backed down from his comments during two interviews with Fox News in the interim, nor had he amended his remarks while flying home across the Atlantic on Monday with a pool of reporters aboard Air Force One.

He said on Tuesday that he misspoke one word in an answer at the news conference in Helsinki.

"My people came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia," Trump said on Monday, while standing next to Putin. "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."

On Tuesday, he said he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.

"The sentence should’ve been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative," Trump said on Tuesday. "I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself."

Trump did not retract other statements at the Helsinki press conference casting doubt on the intelligence agencies’ conclusions.

Trump on Monday drew an equivalence between the US findings and the Russian leader’s denial, saying "I have confidence in both parties." And he bolstered the Russian’s leader’s position, saying "President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

"I came back and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?"’ Trump said on Tuesday. "So I got a transcript I reviewed. I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave, and I realised that there is a need for some clarification."

‘Accept’ conclusion

"I’ve said this many times," Trump added on Tuesday. "I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there."

Trump said the summit with Putin still "was our most successful visit" on his European trip.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer blasted Trump’s clarification as a tardy attempt to "squirm away" from responsibility for his comments.

"It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place," Schumer said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. "If the president can’t say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right and our intelligence agencies are right, it’s ineffective, and worse, another sign of weakness."

Republican legislators including House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Ed Royce, and Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman Bob Corker had publicly criticised Trump for his performance in Helsinki. Several Republicans said they would consider new legislation to sanction Russia for future election meddling, after Trump declined an opportunity Monday to publicly warn Putin against such interference.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said earlier on Tuesday that he would not critique Trump’s appearance with Putin. But he said there was broad understanding in both parties about the threat posed by Russia and warned of more sanctions if the Kremlin attempts to meddle in any future election, including the midterms coming up in November.

"The Russians need to know there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it better not happen again in 2018," the Kentucky Republican said at the Capitol.

Trump’s summit with Putin came just days after Mueller charged 12 Russian military intelligence officials with computer attacks meant to undermine the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

On Monday, separately from the Mueller investigation, US authorities accused Mariia Butina, a Russian national, of trying to establish communications between American and Russian officials during the last election cycle.