In the span of 72 hours, President Trump described the email hacking that roiled the 2016 campaign as a Democratic “hoax” and as clear aggression by Russia that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, failed to address.
Other times, Mr. Trump has said the hacking might have been done by China.
Or, as he claimed during the first general election debate, the hacking could have been the work of a lone wolf weighing 400 pounds, sitting on his bed at home.
Then there was the time Mr. Trump blamed “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
Or, as Mr. Trump has also suggested, there might not even have been hacking at all…
On Saturday, Mr. Trump tried again to focus attention on Mr. Obama.
“Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Focus on them, not T!”
He followed that up with: “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?”
Government officials, members of Congress from both parties and even some Trump supporters had hoped that, with the campaign behind him, Mr. Trump would finally speak declaratively about the email hacking and recognize the threat Russian cyberattacks present, without asterisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation.
That hope has dissipated. The latest presidential tweets were proof to dismayed members of Mr. Trump’s party that he still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help get him elected.
“I think he would be rewarded politically for being tough on Russia,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist and an adviser to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Mr. DuHaime suggested that it was time for Mr. Trump to help himself with a public declaration definitively laying the blame on Russia.
“Most people grew up hearing the Russians are not our allies,” Mr. DuHaime said. “He should be tough on them for what they attempted to do.”
It is not easy to explain why the president won’t concede the Russia question, but aides and friends say the matter hits him where he is most vulnerable. Mr. Trump, who often conflates himself with the institutions he serves, sees questions about Russia as an effort by Democrats and stragglers from the “Never Trump” movement to delegitimize his election victory.
There is another reason, too. Mr. Trump is a wealthy businessman from New York, but he is not a Wall Street titan or a master investor. He is a real estate mogul whose life view is predicated on making deals and who treats almost everything as an open-ended discussion. When it comes to where he stands on Russia and the 2016 election, Mr. Trump, in keeping with his signature approach to almost every issue, appears to be leaving his options open.
It was a winning formula during the campaign. Mr. Trump talked in generalities, refusing to commit to specific policy proposals. “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” was a frequent, vague refrain.
He would speak supportively of both sides of an issue, sometimes in the same sentence, forcing interviewers to scramble to pin him down and leaving supporters and detractors reading what they chose into his words.
“President Trump treats every issue like an ongoing negotiation by hedging his comments with phrases that allow a flexible interpretation of his position,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and a former aide to Mitt Romney. “He refuses to get backed into a corner or pinned down on a specific position so that he always has the option of changing his mind and making a course correction in the future.”
His aides have mirrored that strategy.
On Friday, when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was asked by a reporter if the president stood by his lone January statement that Russia was behind the email hacking, Mr. Spicer replied vaguely: “Of course. He’s concerned about any country or any actor that wants to interfere in elections.”
But the campaign is long over. While many of Mr. Trump’s allies and supporters are still reluctant to blame Russia, the American intelligence community has said that Russian interference is a fact, not an opinion. Mr. Trump’s strategy of muddying his position has let the Russia issue grow, gumming up the gears in his administration’s efforts to move forward with major legislation and decisions.
“Geopolitically, it touches everything,” Mr. DuHaime said.
That includes some important decisions Mr. Trump will have to make: whether to support tougher sanctions against Russia; to give back Russian properties seized by the Obama administration; or to try to remove Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Officials in a number of states have in the meantime complained that the White House has done little to try to safeguard the 2018 and 2020 elections against potential Russian intrusions, even as evidence grows that there were efforts to tamper with voter rolls last year.
Through it all, the president’s allies continue to see Russia as a boogeyman for Democrats and a rapacious news media, an issue his core voters think is manufactured.
“He doesn’t want to be set by this narrative that the Russians hacked the election when he has to negotiate with Russia, who, by the way, sits on China’s border,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide to Mr. Trump. “If Putin adamantly denies that he did it, it’s frankly not an issue to the president.”