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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

Trump backtracks on Russian meddling after Helsinki spectacle

President says he now acknowledges Russia meddled as experts see long lasting impact for statements

Russia's Vladimir Putin offers a ball to the American president Donald Trump during a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. AFP
Russia's Vladimir Putin offers a ball to the American president Donald Trump during a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. AFP

Blaming the “double negative” and claiming that he misspoke in Helsinki next to Vladimir Putin, American president Donald Trump backtracked on Tuesday from his earlier comments, and fully accepted US intelligence findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

Speaking from the White House, Mr Trump said “the sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia, sort of a double negative.”

“I have on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections.”

The sentence in question was “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.” Instead, Mr Trump said he meant “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.”

Senate Democrats were not convinced. Their leader Chuck Schumer accused Mr Trump of trying “to squirm away from what he said yesterday. It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place.

The US administration sped up its damage control efforts to clean up the political mess created by Mr Trump’s controversial comments.

By Tuesday morning, the president’s closest allies, most of his fellow Republicans and Democratic critics in Congress had all but agreed that the summit was botched, and undermined US standing globally.

The Democratic leadership looked to capitalise on his performance, calling for congressional hearings. "The Senate needs to know what happened behind closed doors," Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said in a press conference.

Mr Schumer speculated on Twitter, saying that "millions of Americans are left wondering" if the Kremlin indeed has kompromat, or damaging material, about the president. Russia has denied having any damaging information about Mr Trump.

The call for hearings, however, was not welcomed by the Republican majority. Republican Senator John Cornyn concluded that there are lot of hearings already. "We've been doing that for a long time, ever since the intelligence community assessment [on Russia] was released,” he said.

Across the administration, US officials tried to contain the outrage over the comments, while realising how little control they can have over Mr Trump.

One State Department official told ABC News: “It’s like being on the Titanic and placed in charge of polishing the silverware. Seems a bit pointless.”

Mr Trump's staffers provided the president “with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Mr Putin, but the president ignored most of it,” according to The Washington Post.

Ironically, Mr Trump’s tactics seem to be backfiring on his own objective of restarting relations with Moscow.

Mr Trump’s “long stated goal of promoting normalization of US-Russia has been badly undermined by his own performance in Helsinki,” Andrew Weiss Vice President for Studies, at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The National.

“If he had stayed statesman like, and made his case to the American people, he might have had enough leeway to force change on the issue...but he is very undisciplined , and he shot himself in the foot,” he continued.

The pressure post-Helsinki, coupled with Mr Trump’s isolation from the most senior members of his team on Russia, “makes it unlikely that we will see new initiatives [on jump-starting US-Russia relations],” The expert, who has written extensively about Russia, explained.

He said doing that “would require a level political capital and a well organised policy process that Mr Trump simply doesn’t have”.

The fallout will also make it harder to see “a series of high level visits or initiative such as the recent GOP Senate delegation that visited Russia during the July 4th recess,” Mr Weiss said.

One area where there may be some movement is the day-to-day strategic and military cooperation with Russia, he added.

On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that it is "ready to activate contacts with US colleagues via general staffs and other existing communication channels to discuss extending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, cooperation in Syria, other current issues of ensuring military security".

US defence officials at the Pentagon and Central Command, contacted by The National on Tuesday, were not able to confirm the announcement but are aware of the reports.

Both Mr Trump and Mr Putin alluded at the conference to more cooperation on issues related to nuclear arms reduction and Syria.

But, on Syria, “without knowing what President Trump may or may not have agreed to, the US military will always be reluctant to share targeting information with their Russian counterparts,” Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, told The National.

“This is not the first time joint counter-terrorism operations have been proposed, [former Secretary of State] John Kerry had floated a similar concept as part of a ceasefire plan two years ago, and it is no more likely to succeed this time,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of Russia curtailing Iran’s influence in Syria, Mr Schneider called the idea “nothing but wishful thinking”.

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