Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump appears to think we are all idiots.
He just tried to fix what could be the biggest crisis of his presidency – and he failed disastrously.
Hours earlier he’d left America and the rest of the world slack-jawed in astonishment at his fawning press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where at every turn, Trump seemed to take Putin’s side and attack his own country, explaining that in their private meeting Putin had been “extremely strong and powerful” in denying Russia interfered in the 2016 election – despite the conclusion of the US intelligence agencies that it had.
He said: “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
When even his mouthpiece Fox News criticized Trump, it was time for action.
So the President convened a gaslighting session Tuesday with the media at the White House. Here he told his audience that they had not seen what they saw, had not correctly heard what he meant for them to hear, and that it was all one big misunderstanding. The Helsinki blowback was a silly mixup, Trump explained, reading from typewritten notes.
“In a key sentence in my remarks,” Trump explained, “I said the world ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been “I don’t see why… it wouldn’t be Russia,” he assured us. “Sort of a double negative.”
Perhaps this was the first tactical operation by Trump’s new communications director, Bill Shine. Claim it was a slip of the tongue, a grammatical misfire. Of course, Trump didn’t go so far as to apologize. Instead, he said he “realized there is some need for clarification.” So, when the Wall Street Journal called the Helsinki press conference “a personal and national embarrassment,” when the former CIA director called it “treasonous,” when a top Fox anchor called it “disgusting,” he wanted us to know they had all been thrown off by one word.
Are we supposed to believe this nonsense? After he blamed the “stupidity” of the United States for causing poor relations with Russia, ignoring the fact that Russia invaded its neighbor, shot down a civilian airplane (four years ago today), helped a Syrian dictator who used chemical weapons and, according to a mountain of evidence, attacked American democracy.
But never mind all that. Trump thought his clever would/wouldn’t explanation took care of his massive Helsinki problem. “So,” he concluded to reporters, “you can put that in and I think that clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Please. Verbal dexterity is not this President’s strong suit. But deceiving, misleading, gaslighting, are. This time the ploy collapsed, much like America’s image since he took office.
What’s more, even though it appeared that someone had typed up the script for him, Trump just had to ad-lib. So, even as he tried to reverse his disparagement of US intelligence (“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place”), he couldn’t stop there. “Could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
One message for the base, one message for the rest.
Anyone who listened to his Helsinki press conference – in contrast to his closed-door meeting with Putin, where only translators heard what was said – knows this clean-up effort is laughable.
Far from being an assertion of American dominance – double-negative mistake or no double-negative mistake – it showed us a Trump standing sheepishly, admiringly by a man his own director of national intelligence said is still attacking America’s digital infrastructure. The President looked like a different person from the one we’ve seen. Gone was the swagger, the bone-crushing handshake, the willingness to offend. Trump appeared submissive, cowed.
When Putin described his preposterous offer of having Russia jointly investigate the Mueller probe indictments, Trump called it “an incredible offer, OK?”
Former US counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said Trump is “acting like a controlled asset.” And the respected former US ambassador to Russia, William Burns, called the press conference “the single most embarrassing performance by an American president on the world stage that I’ve ever seen.”
Most of us are old enough to remember when the GOP was tough on Russia, strong on NATO. It was 2016.
And after the sordid Helsinki spectacle and the attacks against NATO allies, Republican leaders have decided now to criticize the President – a bit. The question now is what they are going to do about him.
His European tour was destructive and dangerous. Putin will now feel much less restrained in his foreign adventurism. He knows Trump would be reluctant to stop him. Trump is already weakening the Western alliance, calling the European Union America’s foe and Russia a “competitor,” explaining that is “a compliment.”
The problem here is not a grammatical faux pas. The problem is the President. And it is a national emergency.
Republicans can pretend they’ve been fooled by Trump’s idiotic explanation and move on. Or they can take action. It’s time to call in the translator who witnessed the Putin-Trump meeting to find out what exactly happened. It’s time to protect the Mueller investigation with legislation. It’s time to recognize that the man in Oval Office is a genuine threat to the country and the world.