WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump accused the news media Thursday of trying to provoke a confrontation with Russia that could lead to war, as he continues to push back against criticism of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war," the president said on Twitter. "They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I'll probably have a good relationship with Putin. We are doing MUCH better than any other country!"
Trump also complained that many news reports about him are "total fiction."
The media "is going Crazy!" he tweeted.
"They make up stories without any backup, sources or proof. Many of the stories written about me, and the good people surrounding me, are total fiction," Trump said. "Problem is, when you complain you just give them more publicity. But I'll complain anyway!"
"The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media," he declared.
It marked the start of Day Three of Trump trying to manage the political fallout from his widely criticized performance at the summit meeting with Putin this week in Finland.
Putin, in his first public comments about the summit, told Russian diplomats Thursday that U.S.-Russian relations are "in some ways worse than during the Cold War," but that the meeting with Trump allowed them to start on "the path to positive change."
"We will see how things develop further," Putin said, evoking unnamed "forces" in the U.S. trying to prevent any improvement in relations and "putting narrow party interests above the national interest."
Trump had toughened his tone about Russia on Wednesday, saying in a CBS News interview that he told the Russian president to his face during Monday's summit to stay out of America's elections "and that's the way it's going to be."
That rhetoric marked a turnabout from Trump's first, upbeat description of the sit-down. Still, Trump backtracked on whether Russia is currently targeting U.S. elections. Asked the question Wednesday, he "no" answer put him sharply at odds with recent public warnings from his own intelligence chief.
Hours later, the White House stepped in to say Trump's answer wasn't what it appeared.
The zigzagging laid bare the White House's search for a path out of trouble that has dogged the administration's discussions of Russia from the start, but spiraled after Trump's trip to Helsinki. After days of criticism from Democrats and Republicans, Trump —who celebrates his brash political incorrectness — has appeared more sensitive than usual to outside opprobrium.
The scale of the bipartisan outcry at Trump's stance toward Putin has only been rivaled by his 2017 waffling over condemning white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"I let him know we can't have this," Trump told CBS News of his conversations with Putin. "We're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be."
Would he hold Putin personally responsible for further election interference? "I would, because he's in charge of the country."
The CBS interview followed two days of shifting statements by the president.
On Monday, Trump appeared to question the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
His reservations, expressed 18 months into his presidency and as he stood next to Putin on foreign soil, prompted blistering criticism at home, even from prominent fellow Republicans.
On Tuesday, he delivered a scripted statement to "clarify" — his word — the remarks Monday. He said he misspoke by one word when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
On Wednesday, he was asked during a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still targeting the U.S., and answered "no" without elaborating. That came just days after National Intelligence Director Dan Coats sounded an alarm, comparing the cyberthreat today to the way U.S. officials said before 9/11 that intelligence channels were "blinking red" with warning signs that a terror attack was imminent.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later Wednesday that Trump actually was saying "no" to answering additional questions — even though he subsequently went on to address Russia.
"The president is wrong," GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said of Trump's one-word response. Told that Sanders had since clarified, she responded: "There's a walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back? This is dizzying."
Trump has refined and sharpened his presentation since Helsinki.
At the news conference with Putin, he was asked if he would denounce what happened in 2016 and warn Putin never to do it again, and he did not directly answer. Instead, he delivered a rambling response, including demands for investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server and his description of Putin's "extremely strong and powerful" denial of meddling.
Trump asserted Wednesday at the White House that no other American president has been as tough on Russia. He cited U.S. sanctions and the expulsion of alleged Russian spies from the U.S., telling reporters that Putin "understands it, and he's not happy about it."
The muddied waters have deepened critics' concerns that Trump is not taking threats to the U.S. electoral system seriously enough. Pressed on why Trump has repeatedly passed on opportunities to publicly condemn Putin's actions, Sanders suggested Trump was working to make the most of an "opportunity" for the two leaders to work together on shared interests.
One such opportunity is what Trump termed an "incredible offer" from Putin to allow the U.S. access to Russians accused of election hacking and other interference. In exchange, Putin wants Russian interviews of Americans accused by the Kremlin of unspecified crimes.
Sanders said Trump was still weighing the offer with his team, adding, "We've committed to nothing." Russian officials have said they want to interview Kremlin critics Bill Browder and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
McFaul tweeted Wednesday that he hoped the White House would denounce "this ridiculous request from Putin."
Lawmakers have urged Trump to reject the deal.
"We're going to make sure that Congress does everything it can to protect this country," said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who heads the party's campaign arm.
A number of senators are swiftly signing on to a bipartisan bill from Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to slap new sanctions on Russia or any other country caught posting ads, running fake news or otherwise interfering with election infrastructure.
Sanders called the legislation "hypothetical" and declined to say whether the president would back it.
Two other lawmakers, Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., will try to force a vote Thursday on a resolution backing the intelligence community's findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and must be held accountable. A similar House vote Tuesday failed on a party-line vote.
The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Burr of South Carolina, said if Trump doubts that Russia would again try to intervene, "He needs to read the intelligence."
At the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington last Friday, Coats said, "We are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and voter data bases that we experienced in 2016; however, we fully realize that we are just one click on a keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself."
His comments came the same day the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for their role in hacking Democratic groups during the 2016 campaign.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Aspen, Colorado, and Tami Abdollah and Susannah George in Washington contributed to this report.