With President Donald Trump’s acute inability to stay on–script, it was only a matter of time before he would stick his foot in his mouth during a grueling 12–day, five–nation tour of Asia. And, of course, he messed up.
On Saturday, Trump drew harsh criticisms after he sided with Russian President Vladimir Putininstead of the U.S. intelligence community over Russia’s cyberattacks on the 2016 elections. Trump, who spoke with Putin several times at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, said the Russian leader insisted he wasn’t behind attempts to undermine the U.S. elections that put Trump in office, and that Trump believed him.
“He says he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that he means it.”
Trump also made a bizarre comment that raised eyebrows about people getting killed because of the allegations, which led many to wonder if the president of the United States had actually discussed murder with Putin.
“Having a good relationship with Russia’s a great, great thing. And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way. People will die because of it,” Trump said.
Those comments did not go over well back home. Several critics accused the president of a gaffe that ranged anywhere from reckless to treasonous.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of KGB colonel over US intelligence community. There’s no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating w/ Russia to prop up murderous Assad regime,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement. “To believe otherwise is naive & places nat’l security at risk.”
So, on Sunday, Trump awkwardly tried to walk back his statements. But not really. Referring to Putin at a news conference with Vietnam’s president, Trump said, “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” the Associated Press reported. “As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies. As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
Regardless of whether Trump actually believes in the intelligence agencies, which overwhelmingly concluded that the Kremlin was in fact behind meddling in the 2016 elections, or whether Trump even believes his own statements, the damage already has been done.
Two former top intelligence officials— former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.—said on Sunday that Trump is being “played” by Putin, The Washington Post reported, citing interviews on CNN’s State of the Union.
“By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin that we know you’re responsible for this, I think he’s giving Putin a pass,” Brennan said.
“He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities,” Clapper added.