Trump’s addition that there could have been other culprits appeared to be an ad-lib. The president toggled between reading from prepared remarks and speaking off the cuff.
The president claimed he only recognized his error on Russia’s involvement when he returned home and read the transcript of his press conference. During the Q&A, he said: “My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and others, and they said, ‘I think it is Russia.’ I have President Putin, he just said it is not Russia. I will say this—I do not see any reason why it would be.”
That was an inadvertent mistake, Trump claimed Tuesday: “In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would instead of wouldn’t,” Trump said. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’”
But while Trump portrayed this as merely “clarifying”—rather than wholly reversing—what he said on Monday, his new position still stands at odds with that of the U.S. intelligence community, which has offered not just educated guesses but extensive evidence of Russian involvement.
Despite Trump’s statements that there was no collusion, there exists a great deal of publicly available evidence of behavior that could constitute collusion. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has not yet reported what he has found on the matter.
Nonetheless, by acknowledging interference while denying collusion, the president made a distinction he has usually refused to make. Apparently fearing that any acknowledgment of Russian meddling would delegitimize his victory, he has mostly declined to speak about the interference. Relatedly, he has not focused on American election security in the present, even as Coats and other officials have warned that the national voting infrastructure is vulnerable. On Tuesday, however, Trump vowed to protect voting systems. He did not revisit Putin’s offer, which he complimented on Monday, to have Russian intelligence agents assist in investigating the 2016 election.
“My administration has and will move aggressively to repeal any efforts and repel,” he said. “We will stop it. We will repel it. Any efforts to interfere in our elections. We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018, and we have a lot of power.”
While Trump’s acknowledgment of Russian interference is a 180-degree reversal from Monday, he has vacillated repeatedly about the issue over the past two years. As I wrote last summer, the president seems to deploy these frequent changes of position to muddy the waters. During the campaign, he disputed attributions of interference to Russia. In his only press conference between the election and his inauguration, he said he blamed Russia, but then backed off. During a summer 2017 trip to Europe, he said it could have been Russia or someone else: “Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.” After meeting with Putin later on the same trip, Trump seemed to take the Russian president at his word, noting that he had denied any Russian role. He made a similar reversal after speaking to Putin in Vietnam in November.