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Trump Attempts To Soften Controversial Remarks He Made In Helsinki


President Trump was in damage control mode this afternoon. Just yesterday, he stood with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and called the Russian president's denials of election interference in 2016 extremely strong and powerful. That's despite the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. Well, here's what President Trump said at the White House this afternoon.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people out there. One of them is NPR's Sarah McCammon at the White House, who joins us now on the line. Hi, Sarah.


SHAPIRO: Why did the president change his tune today?

MCCAMMON: Well, from the moment that he gave that press conference in Helsinki alongside Vladimir Putin yesterday where he failed to clearly denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election, he's been under growing criticism. His comments were seen as undermining the U.S. intelligence community and were roundly criticized across the political spectrum. Just today, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell made public statements reaffirming that Russia did interfere in the election. McConnell said Congress is prepared to act if necessary. Trump's statements were also at odds with the position of his own administration, including the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. So he was under growing pressure to say something to clean this up.

SHAPIRO: Part of what he said was that he misspoke yesterday. He tried to kind of clean up his language. What was that about?

MCCAMMON: That's right. He spoke to reporters at the White House today ahead of a meeting with members of Congress and said that after the press conference in Finland, he couldn't understand the outcries there. He went back and reviewed a transcript of his remarks.


TRUMP: I realize that there is a need for some clarification. 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.

MCCAMMON: So President Trump went on to say it was supposed to be sort of a double negative like, I don't know why it wouldn't be Russia. But, Ari, we could listen back to the clip from yesterday, he sounded pretty clear.


TRUMP: My people came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. 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.

MCCAMMON: And then Trump did go on a few sentences later yesterday to say that he has great confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies, but also that Putin was, quote, "extremely strong and powerful" in his denials of Russian involvement. So if you hear all that in context, it didn't sound like he was denouncing Russia. And today, as we heard, he also said it could have been other people who interfered.

SHAPIRO: Even today he said that as he was walking back his remarks from yesterday.


SHAPIRO: So in addition to the press conference yesterday, there was this two-hour meeting between just presidents Trump and Putin and their interpreters. What did President Trump say about what was discussed there?

MCCAMMON: Well, according to Trump, they talked about problems in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, the threat posed by Iran. They also talked about efforts to protect the long-term security of Israel and the desire for North Korea to denuclearize. Now, the Russian Defense Ministry has put out a statement saying that Trump and Putin in their talks reached agreements on some security issues that Russia is ready to implement. Specifically, Russia says those involve cooperation in Syria and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty related to nuclear weapons. The White House, though, isn't commenting much except to say that the Helsinki summit is the beginning of a process and that the administration is reviewing the discussion between Trump and Putin and looking at the next steps.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon speaking with us from the White House. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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