Donald Trump now says he holds the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, personally responsible for his country’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, further walking back a statement on Monday that drew bipartisan rebukes.
In an interview broadcast on Wednesday evening, the US president told Jeff Glor of CBS News that he holds Putin responsible “because he’s in charge of the country, just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country”.
Asked if he agreed with US intelligence assessments that Russia meddled in the election in 2016, Trump replied: “Yeah, and I’ve said that before, Jeff. I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
Asked what he had said to Putin during a one-on-one meeting the two had in Helsinki on Monday, Trump replied: “Very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that.”
But Trump stopped short of saying that if the intelligence services were correct in their assessment, then Putin must be lying.
“I don’t want to get into whether or not he’s lying. I can only say I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted. I think Dan Coats is excellent … we have excellent people. So when they tell me something it means a lot.”
Christopher Wray, the FBI director, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, said on Wednesday that Russia continued to attempt to sow discord in the US, using fake news and propaganda to “spin up” Americans.
He added that he stood behind the US intelligence agencies’ assessment of Moscow’s election meddling.
He also said that Moscow’s offer of assistance in the investigation of Russian military intelligence officials indicted in the US on espionage charges, was “not high on our list of investigative techniques”.
The president’s statements came after a second day of efforts by the White House to quell bipartisan anger over his failure to publicly hold Putin to account at a joint news conference in Helsinki.
Trump rejected criticism from senior members of even his own party, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who accused him of showing “weakness”.
“I totally disagree. I think it was a strong news conference. People said you should have gone up to him, you shoulda started screaming in his face. We’re living in the real world, OK?”
In his private meeting with Putin, Trump continued, the two leaders discussed nuclear proliferation and the protection of Israel. On North Korea, Trump said the Russian president “agrees with what I’m doing and that I’m doing a great job. He said he’d help, and I think he will.”
“I think we have a deal. There’s no rush. There’s no missiles going off. We have our hostages back. There’s no testing, so we’ve come a long way in a short period of time. There is no rush, but we would like to see the denuclearization of North Korea. He [Putin] feels strongly about and I feel strongly about it, so that’s good.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the White House tortured semantics of the past several days continued when Trump replied “no” when asked by reporters whether he believed Russia was “still targeting the US”, contradicting Dan Coats, director of national intelligence.
A few hours later, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, claimed Trump had been answering a different question, and that “we believe the threat still exists”.
The exchanges came a day after Trump’s tortured effort to clarify what he had said in Helsinki on Monday, claiming that he had accidentally used “would” instead of “wouldn’t” to describe whether he thought Russian intelligence interfered in the election.
Trump had told reporters: “They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump told reporters. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
In a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday morning, Trump continued his campaign to recast interpretation of the Helsinki meeting.
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!”