President Trump said Tuesday that he misspoke when he seemed to dismiss allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, stating clearly that he accepts the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions as he sought to quell a bipartisan firestorm over his press conference with Vladimir Putin.
The president clarified his remarks during a meeting with lawmakers at the White House, in a rare backtrack.
In Helsinki a day earlier, Trump had said he doesn't "see any reason why" Russia would be behind election meddling. This and other comments led to bipartisan outrage and accusations that he was taking Putin's word over the intelligence community's.
But Trump said Tuesday he meant the opposite. He suggested he was surprised by the negative reaction when he returned to Washington.
"I came back and said 'What is going on, what’s the big deal?'” Trump said, adding that he reviewed the transcript and "realized that there is a need for some clarification."
The president told reporters that he meant to say he doesn't see why Russia "wouldn't" be responsible.
“I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't' ... sort of a double negative," he said.
It's unclear whether the clarification will calm the backlash in Washington, as Trump also said following his meeting with Putin that the Russian leader gave a "strong and powerful" denial. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., kept up his criticism Tuesday afternoon, tweeting: "President Trump tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday. It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place."
But Trump sought to make clear Tuesday that he stands behind the intelligence community.
"I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place," he said, adding: "It could be other people also."
Trump's comments came after even his allies urged him to clean up the press conference statements from Finland. Until now, Trump had battled his critics via Twitter while defending his trip abroad.
Trump tweeted earlier Tuesday that his earlier NATO meeting, where he pressed allies to commit more in defense spending, as well as the Putin summit were a success. Further, he argued his actions at NATO would be bad for Russia.
“I had a great meeting with NATO. They have paid $33 Billion more and will pay hundreds of Billions of Dollars more in the future, only because of me. NATO was weak, but now it is strong again (bad for Russia). The media only says I was rude to leaders, never mentions the money!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
He added, moments later, that his meeting with Putin was “even better.”
“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way—the Fake News is going Crazy!”
Trump continued to defend the meetings themselves while speaking to lawmakers at the White House, touting them as a success.
"We are going to have peace, that's what we want, and that's what we're going to have. I say peace through strength," Trump said of his talks with NATO allies, noting that the talks brought a "great spirit that we didn't have before."
Trump also defended his meeting with Putin, saying he entered with a strategy of "diplomacy" and "engagement," which is "better than hostility."
Trump said he was in a position of "strength" in the meeting.
"Our economy is booming, and our military ... it will be more powerful of a military than we've ever had before," Trump said, noting the range of topics he and Putin discussed included Syria, Iran, nuclear proliferation, North Korea and Israel.
"I think the meeting I had with President Putin was really strong. I think they were willing to do things, frankly I thought they wouldn't be willing to do," Trump said. "It was a very, very good meeting."
Trump had angered members of both parties, though, by saying both countries are to blame for damaged U.S.-Russian relations, and letting Putin deny election meddling unchallenged.
Democrats let loose on the president in response.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said ealier Tuesday that Trump's remarks were "nothing short of treason," echoing comments from Obama CIA boss John Brennan. He brushed off pressure from the party’s left flank to pursue impeachment, calling the issue a “distraction” – but kept the door open for some kind of future rebuke, saying there will be time to address such issues “once we take control of the House back.”
“Russia did meddle with our elections,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday, while urging the U.S. to aid other democracies around the world in protecting their election systems. “We know that they interfered, and we have passed sanctions…to make sure they don’t interfere again.”
Ryan suggested that the U.S. “will face this Russian aggression again.”
When asked whether he thought Trump was treasonous, he responded: “I do not.”
Ryan did say, however, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller “should be allowed to carry out his work” in investigating Russian meddling and potential collusion with Trump campaign associates during the 2016 presidential election.
On the Senate side, Republicans are discussing a new measure to back the intelligence community’s findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. So far, a similar measure has not been introduced or discussed in the House.
“I do think that the findings ... during the end of the Obama administration provides a road map to what the Russians did, as do the indictment of the 12 Russian GRU intelligence officials. And we’d better wake up,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Cornyn added that he “trusts” the intelligence community and the special counsel investigation “so far.”
“[The investigation] has shown there was absolutely no collusion with the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence activity leading up to the election,” Cornyn said. “That’s what I think has got the president so spun up, is because he feels this is an attack on him personally.”
He added: “I wish we could separate those two. But indeed our Democratic colleagues don’t want to separate those because they realize that this is the best way to keep this story going for as long as they can, through the next election, and who knows, through the presidential election as well.”
Trump was hit with a blistering statement from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been out of Washington for months battling brain cancer. He called the president’s performance “disgraceful.”
Even some of the president’s closest surrogates, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, criticized his comments and urged him to address them.