White House

Trump tries to walk back claim of ‘Russia helping me to get elected’

President promises ‘major statement’ about something ‘very dramatic’ on southern border

President Donald Trump looks into the audience during a rally at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa., last week. Air Force One is parked behind him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump on Thursday was forced to backtrack from his own admission that Russia helped him win the 2016 election, and continued to try to discredit special counsel Robert S. Mueller III after he signaled the president broke federal laws.

“Russia, Russia, Russia! That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax...And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” the president tweeted minutes before speaking to reporters at the White House as he departed for Colorado.

When asked about that jaw-dropping tweet — the president and his surrogates for years have said Russia’s meddling efforts did not push him over the finish line ahead of Hillary Clinton — Trump quickly backtracked.

“No, Russia did not help me get elected,” he said in the latest minute-by-minute contradiction from his time in office.

[Analysis: Trump says he doesn’t want to be impeached, but he sure acts like it]

Before he boarded Marine One to head to Colorado to address graduating U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, the president also promised a “major statement” today or Friday about the southern border. “We are going to do something very dramatic on the border,” he said. “I would say my biggest statement” yet on the situation there.

Trump again claimed Mueller was too “conflicted” for the job, saying he “should have never been chosen” due to a dispute over membership fees at Trump’s Sterling, Virginia, golf club. Trump also said Mueller “wanted” to become FBI director again, “but I said no” early in his term.

The president advised reporters to “read Article II” of the Constitution, saying it gives chief executives broad powers. “There were no charges, none,” Trump said, adding there was “no crime” committed.

Mueller delivered a statement Wednesday morning at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, firing a few warning shots across Trump’s bow and sending thinly veiled signals to the House Democratic caucus that holds the keys to possible impeachment proceedings against the president.

The former FBI director said he would have been unable to charge Trump because doing so would have been “unconstitutional” due to department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. While Trump again on Thursday said Mueller found “no collusion,” the special counsel a day earlier said he found no criminal-level conspiracy, suggesting Trump campaign contacts with Russians were wrong.

And on obstruction of justice, Mueller was most blunt, saying if his team had found no evidence of presidential crimes it would have stated that “clearly” in its final report.

Trump clearly feels stung and possibly politically damaged by Mueller’s Wednesday statement, which caused some House Democrats to push even harder for impeachment proceedings, while key committee chairs like Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said it only emboldened them to press on with their list of probes of all things Trump.

Under a late-spring sun on the South Lawn Thursday morning, the president, however, was as defiant as ever. For the first time, he called Mueller “a true never-Trumper.” That came weeks after the president said Mueller conducted his probe “honorably,” another striking change of opinion driven by negative news coverage and criticism from his political rivals.

“There’s no obstruction, there’s no collusion,” the president contended. “He said basically the same as the report.”

But what ramped up pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin impeachment efforts was how Mueller delivered his statement, which was deeply nuanced and stressed that the special counsel’s office did find evidence of crimes.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said before announcing he would prefer to not testify before Congress or speak to the media. Nadler sidestepped a question about whether he will issue a subpoena to try to force him to do so.

[‘Case closed!’ Trump declares, even as Mueller fires warning shot on obstruction]

Pelosi again on Wednesday tried to deflect calls from her members for impeachment. Reporters asked the president the next day if he expects to become only the third U.S. chief executive to be impeached, possibly joining Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.

“I don’t see how,” he replied, but suggested it is possible: “It’s a dirty, filthy, disgusting word. … It’s a giant presidential harassment.”

But House Democrats say their investigations, and even considering impeachment proceedings, are part of their constitutional duty to perform oversight of the executive branch. Nadler says he has an obligation to study what Mueller said and look for potential criminal actions, adding Trump has “lied” to the American people.

The special counsel’s report plainly stated that Trump very much tried on multiple occasions and through multiple aides to hinder, limit and even end the probe.

Trump’s attempts to do so “were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” according to the report. “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

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