President Donald Trump appeared to acknowledge Thursday that Russia helped him get elected in 2016, a startling admission the president quickly walked back in comments to reporters.
The statement — which Trump tweeted, deleted and reposted Thursday morning — appears to be the first time Trump has said he had help winning the White House. It comes a day after Robert Mueller concluded his work as special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election by pointing out that his investigation did not exonerate Trump on the issue of obstructing justice.
Trump mentioned Russian election help in a larger point about how Mueller hadn't found that the Trump presidential campaign was involved with election interference.
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"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. It was a crime that didn't exist," Trump wrote in the tweet.
He continued, "So now the Dems and their partner, the Fake News Media, ... say he fought back against this phony crime that didn't exist, this horrendous false accusation, and he shouldn’t fight back, he should just sit back and take it. Could this be Obstruction? No, Mueller didn’t find Obstruction either. Presidential Harassment!"
But when asked about the comment several minutes later while departing the White House, Trump denied Russia helped him: "Russia did not help me get elected. You know who got me elected? I got me elected. Russia didn't help me at all."
Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian intelligence officers and 3 Russian companies on charges connected to interfering in the election. While the U.S. intelligence community has accepted that Russia interfered in the election — emails of prominent Democrats were stolen and disseminated — Trump has often cast doubt on whether Russia was really behind it.
Mueller stressed at the conclusion of his public statement Thursday "the central allegation of our indictments—that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election."
"That allegation deserves the attention of every American," Mueller said.
Trump did declare at a news conference before his inauguration, "I think it was Russia" behind the hacking of Democrats' emails. But he left open the possibility that other nations were involved in it, according to a list compiled by Politico.
Trump has also said Russian President Vladimir Putin told him personally that Russia didn't interfere in the election, and that he believes Putin.
"Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that.' And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," he told reporters in November 2017.
Trump's comments to reporters on Thursday reiterated his attacks on members of the team that investigated him. He said that he hopes that surviving the Mueller report "goes down as one of my greatest achievements because I've exposed corruption like nobody knew existed."
Attorney General William Barr has ordered an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, something that Trump has long called for.
Trump accused Mueller of being a "true never-Trumper," repeating his debunked claim that the former FBI director had conflicts of interest.
Mueller, a Republican who was appointed special counsel by the Trump administration's former deputy attorney general, notes in his report that Trump's advisers dismissed the president's claims that Mueller had a conflict of interest as "silly" or "not true conflicts."
Justice Department ethics officials also found it “appropriate” for Mueller to lead the investigation, according to FactCheck.org.