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White House struggles to contain political outcry over Trump-Putin summit

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Washington: The White House struggled on Wednesday to contain a political outcry and confusion over U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denying Trump ever meant to say that Moscow was no longer targeting the United States.

Trump, facing uproar over his failure to confront Putin over Russia’s 2016 U.S. election meddling, adopted his usual defiant posture two days after their Helsinki summit and called his critics deranged.

 

President Trump said on Tuesday that compared to his meetings with NATO leaders and a visit to the UK this week, his coming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be the ‘easiest of all’.

Asked by a journalist before a morning Cabinet meeting whether Russia was still targeting the United States, Trump looked at the reporter, shook his head and said, “No.”

At a later briefing, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the president was saying “no” to answering questions, not to the question itself.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Russia’s efforts to undermine elections are continuing and now target the Nov. 6 congressional races. Sanders said Trump believes the threat from Russia to undermine those elections still exists.

Asked later in an interview with CBS News whether he held Putin personally responsible for meddling in the 2016 election, Trump said he did.

“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,” he said.

 

The US president said that in his talks with Putin, he was “very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that.” But Trump also appeared to question whether such statements would have an impact on Russia. “We’re also living in a grown-up world,” he said.

Sanders explanation of Trump’s “No” was the second time since Monday’s summit that Trump and the White House have blamed a misstatement or misunderstanding for the furor over Russia.

On Tuesday, Trump said he misspoke at a Helsinki news conference with Putin and that he accepted intelligence agency conclusions about Russian election meddling, although he hedged by deviating from his prepared notes to say “it could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”

Trump stunned the world on Monday by shying away from criticizing the Russian leader for Moscow’s actions to undermine the election, sparking bipartisan fury at home and prompting calls by some U.S. lawmakers for tougher sanctions and other actions to punish Russia.