- Trump’s closest advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly urged him to issue a correction.
- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly called Republican leaders and gave permission for them to denounce Trump’s remarks.
- National Security Adviser John Bolton, who tends to hold hawkish views against the US’s adversaries, also expressed concern but stopped short of pushing for a correction because it would make the president appear weak.
As the fallout from President Donald Trump’s controversial joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin spread on Capitol Hill, Trump’s closest advisers were reportedly conflicted and scrambled to control the backlash.
Shortly after refusing to condemn Putin and back the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered with the 2016 US Presidential election, Trump was met with a wave of criticism from both parties.
Initially, Trump was reportedly shocked by the level of outrage from political circles — which included cable news hosts from nearly every major network. But as the president arrived back to the US, that feeling soon turned to anger, according to a Republican source close to the White House.
“He was enraged there was a lack of people out there defending him,” the Republican said in a Vanity Fair report.
“This was the nightmare scenario,” another Republican in contact with the administration told Vanity Fair.
On Tuesday, Trump initially saw no need to walk back his comments, a person familiar with the discussion said in a Bloomberg report. In addition to standing firm, he thanked Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who made glowing statements on Trump’s summit and blamed the bipartisan protests on “Trump-derangement syndrome.”
But some of Trump’s closest advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, held a different view, according to Bloomberg. The two senior officials reportedly had a private conversation with the president to urge him to issue a correction.
National security adviser John Bolton, who tends to hold hawkish views against US adversaries, also expressed concern but stopped short of advising a correction because it would make the president appear weak, reported Vanity Fair.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was also reportedly angered by Trump’s press conference and believed it would add fuel to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia probe. In addition to consulting Trump, Kelly called Republicans and gave them permission to denounce Trump’s remarks, according to three Vanity Fair sources familiar with the situation.
Several notable Republicans went on to rebuke Trump’s meeting and described it as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in a statement on Monday. “But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said he concurred with US intelligence assessments and added that “there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
As the bipartisan sentiment gained traction, White House aides reportedly hoped it would sway Trump and convince him to deviate from his stance, according to The New York Times. On Tuesday, it appeared their efforts paid off.
In a statement reportedly drafted by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, Trump told reporters that the outrage based on his comments in Helsinki were attributed to a grammatical error.
“I’ve said this many times,” Trump said, reading from a written statement. “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.”
“The sentence should’ve been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” Trump added. “I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
However, Trump stopped short of condemning Russia and noted that other actors could have been responsible in meddling with the election.
“Could be other people also,” Trump said. “A lot of people out there.”