The post-Helsinki damage control continues. This afternoon President Trump gave an interview to CBS News in which he affirmed that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and that he holds President Putin responsible for it. CBS posted this transcript of the exchange between Trump and anchor Jeff Glor:
GLOR: “You say you agree with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016.”
TRUMP: “Yeah and I’ve said that before, Jeff. I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
GLOR: “But you haven’t condemned Putin, specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?”
TRUMP: “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
GLOR: “What did you say to him?”
TRUMP: “Very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that – now look. We’re also living in a grown-up world. Will a strong statement – you know – President Obama supposedly made a strong statement – nobody heard it. What they did hear is a statement he made to Putin’s very close friend. And that statement was not acceptable. Didn’t get very much play relatively speaking. But that statement was not acceptable. But I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
This is a perfectly acceptable line for the President to take. He didn’t really finish his statement about his own “strong statement” to Putin, but it seems where he was going with this was to say that we can’t expect a strong statement to immediately change things. Again, that’s a reasonable and realistic take, one that the President suggested when he was in England before his trip to Helsinki. During his joint press conference with PM Theresa May, Trump was asked what he planned to discuss with Putin. After discussing nuclear proliferation he said he would also bring up election meddling but added, “I don’t think we’ll have any ‘Gee I did it, I did it, you got me.'” He added, “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think.”
The note of realism about what to expect from Putin is all good and the fact that he said the same thing pre-Helsinki spoils the narrative that he went into this meeting without realistic expectations about the spin Putin was likely to offer. Trump literally knew the denial was coming before he arrived.
But that makes it even harder to explain why the president came out of his private meeting and reported that Putin had made an “extremely strong and powerful” denial. Why even mention it if you knew all along it was just Putin’s expected line of BS?
The good news is that President Trump seems to be back on track after a couple of rocky days. Yesterday’s clarification about would vs. wouldn’t in his Helsinki statement didn’t sound convincing but at least he’s now saying what he should have said at the time. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have said all of this when Putin was standing next to him. That would have been awkward but at least Putin would have walked away as the person looking diminished.
Here’s a portion of the CBS interview. The full interview will air on CBS news tonight: