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Washington – His toughness with Vladimir Putin in question, President Donald Trump declared on Wednesday he had told the Russian leader face to face to stay out of America’s elections “and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

A few hours earlier, Trump had answered “no” when asked if the longtime U.S. foe was still targeting American elections. That reply put the president sharply at odds with recent public warnings from his own intelligence chief, but the White House quickly stepped in to say his answer wasn’t what it appeared.

By day’s end, in an interview with CBS News, Trump was ready to set an unmistakably forceful tone.

In Helsinki at their summit on Monday, he said, “I let him know we can’t have this. 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 interview came at the end of two days of shifting statements on whether Trump agreed with the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election that sent him to the White House. Trump now says, with apparent reluctance, that he does agree, but he continues to add that others may have intervened as well.

On Tuesday, he delivered a scripted statement to “clarify” – his word – his public doubting of U.S. intelligence findings of Russian interference in the election to harm his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

His reservations, 18 months into his presidency and standing next to Putin on foreign soil, prompted blistering criticism at home, including from prominent fellow Republicans.

Then, on Wednesday, he was asked during a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still targeting the U.S., and he answered “no” without elaborating. That came just days after National Intelligence Director Dan Coats sounded an alarm, comparing the cyberthreat today to how 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 that Trump actually was saying “no” to answering additional questions – even though he subsequently went on to address Russia.

The muddied waters have deepened critics’ concerns that Trump is not taking seriously enough threats to the U.S. electoral system. 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.

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