President Donald Trump just issued what was arguably the most bald-faced lie of his entire presidency — and that’s saying something.
Following massive bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s disastrous Monday press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, in which he questioned whether Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 US election, Trump held a surprise press appearance on Tuesday afternoon to try to walk back his comments.
Sitting at a table in the White House with members of Congress, Trump read directly off a sheet of paper that had clearly been prepared by his advisers. In halting speech, he asserted that he had “full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies” and that he “accepted” US intelligence’s findings that Russia was behind cyberattacks leading up to the election.
He claimed that he had misspoken at yesterday’s press conference when he told reporters “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]” that interfered in the 2016 election. According to Trump, he meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be [Russia].”
That might be plausible in theory, but if you look at the actual context of what Trump said, it makes no sense, and it’s very clear that he was expressing skepticism about Russia’s guilt. Here’s the key sentence, in italics, surrounded by context:
My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others; they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. ... I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.
So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people [Russian agents indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for election interference]. I think that’s an incredible offer.
He’s saying, clearly, that there’s a conflict between US intelligence and Russian claims, that he’s not sure who’s right, and that he would appreciate Russian intelligence’s help in clearing up what happened.
This isn’t an issue of one skeptical word that could have been misspoken, but of an entire block of words obviously expressing skepticism about Putin and Russia’s guilt.
What’s more, in Trump’s walkback statement on Tuesday afternoon, he still ended up reiterating his skepticism. When Trump said, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he immediately followed it up by saying, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” He clearly doesn’t believe that Russia was involved. He just doesn’t, and he’s trying to convince us that he didn’t mean what he said.
This has happened before. As the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale notes, it’s similar to Trump’s infamous statement expressing sympathy with the Charlottesville white supremacist marchers, in which he read prepared remarks that directly contradicted his ad-libbed, more sincere comments:
Remember the Charlottesville saga: Trump expressed his true views, there was an outcry, he dutifully read a staff-written walk-back statement, then soon after he abandoned the walk-back and even more forcefully expressed his true views.— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) July 17, 2018
Let’s not dance around this: Trump is trying to gaslight the entire world, to assert that he said something he clearly didn’t by sheer force of confident assertion. The president is lying to us, he’s doing it brazenly, and we shouldn’t let him get away with it.