President Trump, just as he was moving to quell the raging controversy over his press conference with Vladimir Putin, touched off a new one Wednesday when he appeared to deny Russia is still targeting the U.S. – prompting another White House clarification.
Trump made the comment at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Asked if Russia is still targeting the country, he said, “No.”
This led to a new wave of condemnations from Democratic lawmakers, who cited his own national intelligence director's warnings to the contrary.
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, during a contentious press briefing, sought to tamp down controversy yet again -- chalking up the furor to another misunderstanding.
She claimed the president was actually saying “no” to answering more questions, not to whether Russia is still targeting the U.S.
Sanders was then pressed to clarify whether the White House believes the threat is ongoing.
“Since there’s currently not an election today, not specifically, but we certainly believe that we are taking steps to make sure they can’t do it again,” she initially said, before adding: “We believe that the threat still exists which is why we are taking steps to prevent it.”
It was the second instance in as many days of the White House going back to clarify a presidential comment and suggesting a misunderstanding – first claiming Trump misspoke, and this time claiming he was not responding to the question asked.
Sanders stressed, though, that, “I’m interpreting what the president said, I’m not reversing it.”
The press briefing was Sanders’ first since Trump left for his overseas trip, where he stirred controversy on a daily basis, by tangling with NATO allies over defense spending and later by appearing to side with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community on allegations of Russian meddling in American elections.
The biggest controversy centered on his statement that he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be behind election meddling.
Facing bipartisan criticism, Trump walked that back on Tuesday. During a meeting with GOP lawmakers, Trump said he reviewed the transcript and “realized that there is a need for some clarification.”
The president said that he meant to say he doesn’t see why Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible.
“I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’…sort of a double negative,” Trump explained.
Other statements during the press conference, like his declaration that the Russian leader gave a “strong and powerful” denial, still seemed to give weight to Putin’s account.
But Trump’s clarification was enough to satisfy some Republican critics. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he was “glad” Trump addressed the press conference.
But Democrats weren’t as quick to let him off the hook. And they blasted him over his latest comments on Wednesday.
“Mr. President, it is time to stop taking the word of a KGB agent over that of your own intelligence officials. Russia interfered in our 2016 elections. They’re actively trying to do it again. You must wake up to that fact,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Wednesday.
Last week, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said warning lights on cyberthreats to the U.S. were "blinking red" -– and Russia has been “the most aggressive foreign actor” and is continuing efforts to “undermine our democracy,” though not at the same level as in 2016.
During the press briefing Wednesday, Sanders defended the admininstration's "tough" stance on Russia, listing their recent actions against Moscow--including sanctions, the expulsion of 60 Russian operatives from the U.S., and the closing of two consulates.
"The president has been extremely tough on Russia and to say anything different is just not true," Sanders said, while also noting that the president "sees this as an opportunity to work with Russia."
"What's been done in the past hasn't worked, so we're trying a new approach," Sanders said of Trump's relationship with Putin.
The Trump-Putin summit came just days after the Justice Department announced the indictments of a dozen Russian intelligence operatives for allegedly hacking Democratic targets in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Putin has previously told Trump that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 presidential election. He repeated those denials Monday.
And when asked whether he would extradite the 12 Russians allegedly involved, Putin instead detailed a plan, which Trump called an “incredible offer.”
Putin offered to question the 12 indicted for meddling in the election, and added that Mueller's team of investigators could be present for questioning, if U.S. officials would “reciprocate.” He suggested this would mean Russian agents could be present for questioning U.S. officers "of interest" to them.
Sanders on Wednesday said that the president would meet with his team, and would update reporters when they have an announcement on whether the U.S. will cooperate.
"There was some conversation about it, but there wasn't a commitment made on behalf of the United States," Sanders said. "The president is considering it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.