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Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Tuesday called Russia a clear adversary to the United States, but he stopped short of criticizing sympathetic comments by President Donald Trump.

Schuette is a Republican candidate for governor and touts an endorsement from Trump, who surprised onlookers and dismayed some GOP lawmakers Monday during a Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin by downplaying Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

"Russia always has been and always will be our biggest adversary in global affairs,” Schuette said in a statement that did not directly reference election meddling findings by the U.S. intelligence committee, including Trump’s own U.S. Department of Justice.

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Schuette went on to praise Trump's domestic policy, which the Midland Republican said he's focused on as a candidate for governor.

“I appreciate President Trump's aggressive policies of cutting taxes and rebalancing trading relationships that make for a strong economy and give America strength on the world stage,” he said.

Back at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Trump attempted to backtrack his controversial comments in which he discounted findings of Russian meddling. The president said he has “full faith and support in America’s intelligence agencies.”

“I accept our intelligence communities’ conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also,” Trump said. “There was no collusion at all.”

Trump said he thought he made himself “very clear” on Tuesday but reviewed the transcript of his remarks at the news conference with Putin and “I realized there’s a need for clarification.”

"In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” Trump said. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative. So you could put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called Trump's explanation "both preposterous and pathetic." The president "can't fix his disaster of a performance on the world stage by inserting a negative contraction," Kildee wrote on Twitter. "The American people aren't stupid."

Trump's original comments, delivered Monday as he stood beside Putin in Helsinki, created a firestorm that bled into Tuesday. But most Republicans running for Michigan governor defended the president or shied away from criticism.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, who is also running for governor, responded to Trump's initial comments by pivoting to allegations of limited-scale voter fraud in Michigan during the 2016 election that “had nothing to do with the Russians.”

Asked again about Trump's comments in Helsinki, a Colbeck spokeswoman said the president “gave an opinion.”

“I think most people view it as such,” she said. “Colbeck wants to focus on matters that would be under his control as governor, such as supporting measures that would improve honesty at the ballot box.”

After Trump's Tuesday mid-afternoon shift, Lt. Gov Brian Calley campaign spokesman Michael Schrimpf said early evening: "As President Trump has clarified, Lt. Gov. Calley believes that Russia meddled in the 2016 election."

Gubernatorial candidate Jim Hines of Saginaw Township said he was not overly concerned by Trump's statements. The obstetrician said he believes the president "knows the Russians meddled in our elections" and noted tough sanctions on Putin's allies imposed during Trump's tenure.

"I also believe the president is trying to get the Russians to work with us on a wide variety of issues including, North Korea, Iran and Syria," Hines said.

Michigan Democrats directly attacked Trump and questioned his commitment to American values after a press conference that saw the president say he had no reason to doubt Putin denials that Russia sought to interfere in U.S. elections.

"President Trump displayed a disgraceful show of weakness and betrayal as he stood beside the Russian president placing blame on America while also discrediting our American intelligence agencies," Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield said in a Tuesday statement.

"...On an international stage, the president of the United States seems to care more about his relationship with President Putin over the protection of our democracy and America’s relationship with our allies in NATO."

Trump's comments came just days after the Justice Department on Friday announced indictments against 12 Russian nationals for hacking Democratic computers.

With Putin at his side, Trump said he holds  “both countries responsible” for damaged relationships between the nations.

“I think that the United States has been foolish,” Trump said. “I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame.”

Several members of Michigan’s Republican congressional delegation responded by quickly vouching for the U.S. intelligence agencies. Others did the same Monday night and into Tuesday before Trump walked back his earlier remarks.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said Russia is "an aggressive foe and Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted."

"In my review of information available to me from the intelligence community, and through hearings in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, it is clear that Russian actors made a deliberate effort to sow discord in our American electoral process and hack into our election infrastructure," Mitchell said in a Tuesday statement.

"While there is no sign they altered votes, this cannot be tolerated. While I support diplomatic efforts, Russia, through its forceful annexation of Crimea, shooting down a civilian airliner, supporting of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, using chemical attacks in the United Kingdom, and more, has repeatedly demonstrated it is not a friend of America."

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, said “we must never lose sight of the fact that Russia is no friend to our democracy.”

“I will continue to advocate that we recognize Russia for who they are, and acknowledge the dangers they pose to the United States and our allies,” Bergman said in a Tuesday statement.

“Through weak foreign policy, fake red-lines, and artificial reset buttons, previous administrations showed Russia and our allies that we were not serious regarding our stand against Russian aggression. We must not continue these same mistakes.”

Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, posted on Facebook that he’s had “deep concerns” about Russia’s behavior including its involvement in Ukraine and support for the Syrian regime.

“That’s why I voted in favor of tougher sanctions on Russia and, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during the 114th Congress, worked with my colleagues to oppose Russian aggression. The American intelligence community has rightfully illustrated the troubling Russian attempts to interfere with our nation’s election system and those suspicious activities by Russia must be stopped,” Trott wrote.

“And while I believe it is encouraging that President Trump is working to forge a better, more peaceful relationship with Russia, I think it is critical that we all remain focused on continuing to deter Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections and destabilize key regions of the world.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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