By Wednesday night, it seemed like Donald Trump had finally given in to the pressure.
“It’s true” that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, he told CBS News. He went on to say that he holds Vladimir Putin responsible. “I would, because he’s in charge of the country,” Trump said, “so certainly as a leader you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
The problem is that what appears to be a significant admission is actually just the latest example of Trump hiding a truth he is reported to have known since before he became president.
Putin is not responsible simply because he leads Russia, he’s responsible because he personally ordered the campaign to undermine American democracy — and Trump has apparently known that all along.
According to the New York Times, “Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.”
That story is confirmed by former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told CNN that he and other intelligence officers briefed Trump on Jan. 6, 2017.
After a bizarre week of the American president of cozying up to Russia’s president, denying he did any such thing, and walking-back his own walk-backs, we’ve reached one inescapable conclusion: Trump has purposely sought to muddy the waters for the last 18 months, knowing full well what Russia did at Putin’s direction.
The question is why?
Speculation has run the gamut from Trump being a Russian asset, or the subject of compromising information, to simply being embarrassed that his election victory might be viewed as illegitimate.
But let’s stick with the facts as we know them.
Despite the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin mounted a coordinated attack to influence and undermine American
democracy, Trump has never seemed to be certain.
“I think it was Russia, I think we also got hacked by other countries and other people,” said Trump, on Jan. 11, 2017 — days before his inauguration, but after he had been briefed about Putin’s role.
“It was Russia, and I think it was probably others also,” he said in Poland in July 2017.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this president, it’s that his initial comments are usually the best barometer of his true beliefs. This brings us back to everything Trump said in Helsinki: the praise of Putin, the acceptance of Russian denials and the dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings.
Trump’s statement that “Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” will be the quote that sticks to him for a very long time to come, especially when you consider the week that has been: The would/wouldn’t backtrack statement from Trump, his “no” when asked if Russia is still targeting the U.S., with the White House later explaining that he really meant “no” to taking questions.
That’s a tangled mess for anyone to weave, especially for someone who has had a plain and simple explanation at his fingertips the entire time: Putin did it.
Suddenly, Trump has to explain not only his initial coziness with Putin, but also his inability to lay bare the facts he is said to have known since before becoming president.
He has dug himself an incredibly deep hole — and it’s not clear how he finds his way out.
Ironically, Republicans would love it if the president just came out and clearly admitted that Russia and Putin interfered in the election.
At least if he did that, they could move on.
WATCH: Trump continues to face backlash from his own party over controversial Putin presser
There’s even a school of thought that says at this point Trump could actually sell the idea that it’s a good thing Russia interfered to keep Hillary Clinton from winning — and his base just might be on board with that.
Today, those easy escape paths are blocked off.
Just as President Obama has been taken to task for failing to act on what he knew about Russian meddling, Trump, too, faces serious questions; except it’s not only a matter of what he knew, but the more troubling question of why he sought to hide it.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.