On Tuesday, the president attempted to walk back statements he made about the trust he had in both Russia and U.S. intelligence agencies, but a new report suggests that that decision may not have been made entirely on his own. According to a source who spoke with Vanity Fair, Chief of Staff John Kelly asked Republicans to condemn Trump's Russia comments, reportedly as a method of putting pressure on the president.
According to the report, Kelly was "irate" after Trump declined to blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. To put pressure on Trump, Kelly reportedly called around Washington, giving the go-ahead for other Republicans to publicly decry the statements, which Trump made as part of a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This was the nightmare scenario," an unnamed Republican reportedly told Vanity Fair.
The comments Trump made were in response to a question regarding whether or not he would hold Russia accountable for interfering with the presidential election two years ago. During the press conference on Monday, Trump declined to blame the country, despite evidence presented to him by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it's Russia," Trump said, referencing the director of national intelligence. "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."
Many characterized the response as a flagrant undercutting of the U.S. intelligence communities on an international stage. Indeed, Trump did face widespread, scathing condemnation not just from Democrats, but also from senior members of his own political party. Sen. John McCain, for example, shared a biting press release, describing Trump's statements as "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
According to McCain, "the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world."
"The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate," the Arizona senator said. "But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake."
McCain was not alone in his biting critique.
"I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression," tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, also of Arizona. "This is shameful."
On Tuesday, Trump characterized his response as a verbal mistake, alleging that he mis-read his prepared comments. Instead of "would," he said, he meant to say "wouldn't." In other words, according to the president, he had intended to say, "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't" be Russia.
Critics on Twitter were quick to contest the veracity of Trump's about face, with many arguing that the single-word mistake still wouldn't account for the rest of his statement, which still denied he believed Russia meddled in the election. How the White House will continue to respond to the outrage is unclear, but it's unlikely that Tuesday's presser marked the end of the debacle as a whole.