Amid harsh criticism, Trump tries a tougher tone on Russia

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during his meeting with members of his cabinet in Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Looking on is Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump spent a second day managing the political fallout from his widely criticized meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, shifting stances and mopping up what the White House said were misstatements.

His toughness with the longtime American foe in question, Trump said Wednesday he told the Russian president face-to-face during Monday’s summit to stay out of America’s elections “and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

That rhetoric marked a turnabout from Trump’s first, upbeat description of his sit-down with Putin. Still, Trump backtracked on whether Russia is currently targeting U.S. elections. When asked the question Wednesday, he answered “no,” a reply that put him sharply at odds with recent public warnings from his own intelligence chief.

Hours later, the White House stepped in to say Trump’s answer wasn’t what it appeared.

The zigzagging laid bare the White House’s search for a path out of trouble that has dogged the administration’s discussions of Russia from the start, but spiraled after Trump’s trip to Helsinki. After days of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, Trump — a politician who celebrates his brash political incorrectness — has appeared more sensitive than usual to outside opprobrium.

The scale of the bipartisan outcry at Trump’s stance toward Putin has only been rivaled by his 2017 waffling over condemning white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I let him know we can’t have this,” Trump told CBS News of his conversations with Putin. “We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Would he hold Putin personally responsible for further election interference? “I would, because he’s in charge of the country.”

The CBS interview came at the end of two days of shifting statements.

On Monday, Trump appeared to question the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

His reservations, expressed 18 months into his presidency and as he stood standing next to Putin on foreign soil, prompted blistering criticism at home, even from prominent fellow Republicans.

On Tuesday, he delivered a scripted statement to “clarify” — his word — his remarks Monday. He said he misspoke by one word when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

On Wednesday, he was asked during a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still targeting the U.S., and he answered “no” without elaborating.

That came just days after National Intelligence Director Dan Coats sounded an alarm, comparing the cyberthreat today to the way U.S. 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 Wednesday that Trump actually was saying “no” to answering additional questions — even though he subsequently went on to address Russia.

“The president is wrong,” GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said of Trump’s one-word response. Told that Sanders had since clarified, she responded: “There’s a walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back? This is dizzying.”

Trump has refined and sharpened his presentation in the two days since Helsinki.

At the news conference with Putin, he was asked if he would denounce what happened in 2016 and warn Putin never to do it again, and he did not directly answer. Instead, he went into a rambling response, including demands for investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server and his description of Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of meddling.

Trump asserted Wednesday at the White House that no other American president has been as tough on Russia. He cited U.S. sanctions and the expulsion of alleged Russian spies from the U.S., telling reporters that Putin “understands it, and he’s not happy about it.”

The muddied waters have deepened critics’ concerns that Trump is not taking threats to the U.S. electoral system seriously enough.

Pressed on why Trump has repeatedly passed on opportunities to publicly condemn Putin’s actions, Sanders suggested Trump was working to make the most of an “opportunity” for the two leaders to work together on shared interests.