On Monday, in Helsinki, Trump said he couldn’t see why Russia would hack our elections. Yesterday, he said he was wrong. Even if you believe him, switching from denial to acceptance isn’t a step forward.
Let’s look at the transcripts. At the joint press conference in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin denied interfering in the election:
Putin: Once again, President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia in the American elections. I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including the election process.
In response to a question, Trump said that Russia would have no reason to interfere. Note the highlighted “would,” which Trump referenced a day later:
Jonathan Lemire from AP: Thank you. A question for each president. President Trump, you first. Just now President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did.
My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe? My second question is would you now with the whole world watching tell President Putin — would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?
Trump: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the democratic national committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others and 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 really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. 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. I think that’s an incredible offer. Okay thank you.
Yesterday, after much criticism from his own Director of National Intelligence and fellow Republicans, Trump clarified that he indeed believes the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian hacking, and that he should have said “wouldn’t” rather than “would.”
Trump: So I’ll begin by stating that I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies. Always have. And I have felt very strongly that, while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — 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.
There was no collusion at all. And people have seen that, and they’ve seen that strongly. The House has already come out very strongly on that. A lot of people have come out strongly on that.
I thought that I made myself very clear by having just reviewed the transcript. Now, I have to say, I came back, and I said, “What is going on? What’s the big deal?” So I got a transcript. I reviewed it. I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave, and I realized that there is need for some clarification.
It should have been obvious — I thought it would be obvious — but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t.” The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t — or why it wouldn’t be Russia. So just to repeat it, I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t.” And the sentence should have been — and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video — the sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.
So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.
I have, on numerous occasions, noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections. Unlike previous administrations, my administration has and will continue to move aggressively to repeal any efforts — and repel — we will stop it, we will repel it — any efforts to interfere in our elections. We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018.
Trump probably meant what he originally said
Remember, the Russian interference included a lot more than hacking the Democratic National Committee — for example, it included extensive activity on social media by trolls and fake news creators intended to cast doubts on Hillary Clinton and news media. But all Trump can talk about is the DNC’s server.
Standing next to the President of Russia who has just denied involvement in the hacking, and with whom, charitably, he is trying to form a relationship, is he going to publicly accuse the Russians of hacking the election? That would be out of character. So instead he says “he has confidence in both parties,” the intelligence officials and Putin. (Since the two parties completely disagree, this amounts to “I don’t know,” not “I believe the Russians hacked to interfere with the election.)
He mentions that “Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Historically, every time he mentions the conclusions of the intelligence experts, he also mentions that other countries could be responsible, even though the intelligence assessment clearly points at interference from Russia only. Here’s a list, thanks to Chris Cillizza and Marshall Cohen at CNN:
- “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” (January 2017)
- “I’ve said it very, I’ve said it very simply. I think it could well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere.” (June 2017)=
- “What I said there, I’m surprised that there’s any conflict on this. What I said there is that I believe [Putin] believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.” (November 2017)
- “Certainly there was meddling. Probably there was meddling from other countries.” (March 2018)
- “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.” (yesterday)
So the most likely conclusions is that Trump meant to cast doubt on whether the Russians had interfered in the election, and to support what Putin had said. In that context, the original, “I don’t see any reason why they [The Russians] would be [hacking the election],” makes perfect sense.
If you take Trump’s reversal at his word, he’s gone from denial to complicity
According to yesterday’s remarks, more than 24 hours later, here’s what Trump meant to say:
Trump [revised]: I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.
What does that mean?
It means he expects that the Russians hacked the election.
Despite all the verbiage yesterday about repelling such attacks in 2018, Trump stood on stage next to someone he now says he believes conducted those attacks and didn’t hold Putin responsible.
During the election, in July of 2016, he actually suggested that Russia should go find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. And the most recent Mueller indictment shows that the Russians started attacking Hillary Clinton’s servers on the same day that he said that.
This is acceptance and complicity. Inviting foreign governments to interfere in American elections, and then saying “I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t” is even worse than denial.
Take your choice on Trump’s attitude towards Russian election interference: denial or complicity. Changing from one to the other is a hell of an improvement. Excuse me, I misspoke. I meant that changing from one to the other isn’t a hell of an improvement.