Soon after taking charge in the White House, US President Donald Trump had admitted Russia hacked the Democratic Party's emails during the 2016 presidential elections. It has now emerged that the president told his close aides that the admission was a "trap".
"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia," Trump had told reporters at Trump Tower on 11 January during his first press conference since the election. "But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people," he had added.
The Washington Post reported that prior to taking office in January, Trump was under immense pressure to back a US intelligence report on alleged Russia meddling in presidential elections. His close advisers "pleaded" with him to publicly acknowledge the findings in the report.
In January 2016, US intelligence agencies had assessed with "high confidence" that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a complex influence campaign that included cyberattacks, leaks and a misinformation campaign to undermine American democracy, hurt Hillary Clinton's chances and help sway votes in Trump's favour.
Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and designated chief of staff Reince Priebus also attempted to convince the president to accept the findings and still manage to avoid "diminishing his electoral win," three officials involved in the intervention sessions with Trump told the Post.
"This was part of the normalisation process," one official reportedly said. "There was a big effort to get him to be a standard president."
Trump, however, dismissed the idea of acknowledging the intelligence findings and asserted that the spy agencies could not be trusted. He also "scoffed" at the suggestion that his win was caused by foreign entities beyond "his own strategy, message and charisma".
"So what?" Trump had reportedly said at the time when he was told that some of his incoming cabinet members had already backed the intelligence report. However, he gave in to the pressure and made the expected admission, but later told his aides that those remarks were "not me". "It wasn't right."
Since then, multiple congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller have been investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Trump's team and the Kremlin.
Moscow had dismissed the intelligence report as "baseless" and denied any involvement in the cyberattack targeting the DNC. Meanwhile, Trump has also continued to reject the evidence and denounced the ongoing probes as a "witch hunt".
Several US officials and critics have slammed Trump for seemingly siding with the Russian president over the American intelligence community.
"He said he didn't meddle, he said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times," Trump told reporters after attending the recent Apec summit in Vietnam. "Every time he sees me he says I didn't do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it."
Trump has also taken aim at the FBI and intelligence officials calling them "political hacks" - remarks that triggered fierce backlash.
So far, four people have been charged as part of Mueller's investigation, including Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, over lying to the FBI. Flynn has agreed to cooperate fully with Mueller's probe as part of his plea agreement.