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Can Trump’s reversal soften damage of Helsinki comments?

Home from Helsinki, President Trump is backtracking on his comments from a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after facing blistering, bipartisan critiques. In damage-control mode, he read from a prepared statement and insisted he has "great" confidence in the intelligence community. Judy Woodruff talks with the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One day later, President Trump is home from Helsinki, and he’s backtracking. He returned overnight, to face blistering critiques from both parties of his summit with Russia’s President Putin.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have to say I, came back and I said, what is going on? What’s the big deal?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president was in damage control mode this afternoon after the storm over his statements in Helsinki.

    Yesterday, he appeared to take Vladimir Putin’s word for it that Moscow didn’t interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, reading from a prepared statement, he said the opposite.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It should have been obvious. I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t.

    In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would, instead of wouldn’t. The sentence should have been, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Helsinki, Mr. Trump had also dismissed U.S. intelligence findings of Russian involvement in the election. Today, he insisted he has great confidence in the intelligence community.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Let me be totally clear in saying that — and I have said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people, also.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier, in tweets, Mr. Trump blamed the news media for the bipartisan shellacking he’s taken. He also blamed special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for hurting U.S.-Russian relations.

    Before leaving Helsinki, he returned to the theme.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They drove a phony wedge. It’s a phony witch-hunt, rigged deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just last Friday, Mueller indicted 12 Russian officials for election cyber-attacks.

    Putin, in his own interview, declined to accept a copy of the indictments, and he appeared to defend the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails.

  • Question:

    So, are you saying it’s OK because it was their real e-mails, so it’s OK to hack and spread this information out and interfere with the election?

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    Listen to me, please. The information that I am aware of, there’s nothing false about it. Every single grain of it is true, and the Democratic leadership admitted it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Moscow announced it’s ready to implement new agreements on boosting collaboration with the U.S. military in Syria and on extending a nuclear arms pact. And Russian reports voiced sympathy for Mr. Trump.

    But in the hours before the president spoke today, the criticism continued from the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:

    Vladimir Putin doesn’t share our interests. Vladimir Putin doesn’t share our values. We just conducted a year-long investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections. They did interfere in our elections. It’s really clear. There should be no doubt about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell declined to directly criticize the president. Instead, he tried to reassure Europe.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    We believe the European Union countries are our friends and the Russians are not. We understand the Russia threat. And I think that is the widespread view here in the U.S. Senate among members of both parties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fellow Republican Susan Collins of Maine did take on Mr. Trump over his initial dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings.

  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine:

    I remain astonished that the president would choose to believe the assertions by President Putin over the unanimous conclusions of his own U.S. intelligence leaders.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some Republicans came to the president’s defense, at least partially. Texas Senator John Cornyn said he understands how the special counsel’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians has affected the president.

  • Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas:

    That’s what I think got the president so spun up, is because he feels like this is an attack on him personally. And I wish we could separate those two.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Democrats sounded a darker note.

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    So many Americans are going to continue to wonder, does President Putin have something over President Trump that makes the president behave in such a way that hurts our country so?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While other Democrats demanded that more Republicans speak out more forcefully.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Why do so many of my Republican colleagues remain silent, in light of President Trump’s open denial of the reality of the Russian involvement in our election?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned of Russian interference in this year’s midterm elections.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    The president gave a green light to continue to attack our democracy to the Russians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Trump today promise all-out efforts to prevent future Russian meddling.

    But Republican Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested Congress may need to take some new action. That could take the form of additional sanctions on the Russians.

    As for reaction in Europe, the office of British Prime Minister Theresa May said today she doesn’t think the Trump-Putin summit undermined the transatlantic alliance.

    But a German member of the European Parliament had a doleful assessment. He said, “We Europeans must take our fate in our own hands.”

    For more on the fallout from President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, I’m joined by Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig.

    Carol, welcome back to the “NewsHour.”

    What sort of reaction has the White House been seeing and hearing, especially from Republicans? What’s coming through to them?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Well, I think Susan Collins actually captured the word best, sort of astonishment, quiet astonishment, red-faced astonishment, and, in the case of Mitch McConnell, sort of swallowing-your-tongue astonishment, where people are not coming out and complaining directly about the president.

    But some are very concerned about what has transpired here, because the golden standard for U.S. foreign policy has always been that we would keep our partisan differences, we would keep our concerns about our internal political affairs on these shores, we wouldn’t attack one another on foreign soil.

    And, here, the president has done just that with a longtime foreign adversary at his side, who he sided with.

    But I would add, also, Judy, that it’s not just Republicans who are being asked for their opinion or openly questioning, as Paul Ryan did, the president’s handling of this matter.

    Inside the White House, there is great consternation about it. We have been hearing about it for the last 24 hours, because this didn’t go exactly according to the staff’s hopes and wishes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In fact, you and your colleagues wrote in The Post today that they had prepared a lot of briefing material for the president. But what you wrote was, he ignored most of it.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Yes, this was supposed to be short and not sweet, but short and tough, a quick meeting, a quick news conference.

    The briefing materials, which numbered up to 100 pages and possibly more, outlined all of the ways to the president that Russia has acted against U.S. interests, its damaging role in Syria, its historic efforts against U.S. interests.

    And yet the president wasn’t able to mention any of those things. He was mostly able to focus on his long stated and publicly stated desire to be friends with Vladimir Putin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, did they believe, with today’s what the president’s clarification, that this is going to settle down?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    I think there are a lot of fingers crossed behind backs, yes.

    However, in a way, the damage has been done. European allies are likely not really believing that the president twice mistakenly said he couldn’t imagine that the Russians would interfere in our election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A remarkable 48 hours, taking yesterday and today together, and, in fact, more than that, going back over the entire trip.

    Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, thank you.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will hear more from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright after the news summary.

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