Vladimir Putin is winning so much, he’s going to get tired of winning.
Two days after President Donald Trump’s humiliation in Helsinki, the election interference operation that keeps on giving – for Russia – is sowing new discord and disorientation in American politics and tightening its grip on the White House.
Trump’s grudging efforts Tuesday to quell a boiling political crisis over his dismal performance at Monday’s summit with the Russian leader only caused more controversy and may not have done much to repair his personal prestige and international reputation.
The still reverberating shock and concern over Trump’s conduct promises days more of political discombobulation and recrimination, setting American against American and ultimately weakening the structures of US and Western democracy.
In other words, exactly what Putin wants, and all he had to do was show up to a summit with Trump to give a drama that is having a deeply corrosive effect on his old enemy, the United States, a new lease on life.
By Tuesday, the White House had concluded the President needed to do something to rescue his relationship with the intelligence community and his political credibility after taking Putin’s word – not that of America’s spies – over the issue of election interference.
But the effort may have backfired when he read from a prepared statement in the White House, an appearance that seemed to further mute his trademark bravado after an episode that has sparked more questions than ever about just what the Russians may have on the US President.
On Capitol Hill, the recurring Trump nightmare that afflicts Republicans reappeared as GOP leaders signaled their disgust at the President’s behavior, sent their own message to Putin and reassured US allies traumatized by the NATO-skeptic President.
But the fact that most walked up to the line of personally, specifically criticizing Trump but did not cross it even under these extreme circumstances showed that the foundations of his presidency are likely to emerge intact from the new crisis enveloping the White House. Democrats, as usual, raged loudly but impotently at Trump’s behavior, though they will hope the dent to the President’s image will linger among voters come the midterm elections in November.
Trump fails to satisfy critics – again
Looking stern, and reading from the prepared text – to which the familiar words “No collusion” had been added in thick, black ink – Trump unspooled an improbable excuse for one of his most troublesome comments Monday in Helsinki – “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for interfering in the US election.
Trump said that once he had gotten home from Helsinki, watched television and read the transcript of the news conference, he realized the answer needed a clarification.
“It should have been obvious – I thought it would be obvious – but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t,” Trump told reporters.
“The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ … So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Except it didn’t. The credibility of Trump’s do-over was called into question since it came a full 24 hours after the disastrous encounter with Putin. The President could at any time have cleaned his comment up more quickly. And if the new phrase is inserted in Trump’s remarks it becomes quite obvious it is out of context and doesn’t reflect what he was trying to convey in surrounding sentences.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported that the impetus for Trump’s statement that he had misspoken in Finland came from the President himself. There was concern among Trump aides that his kowtowing to Putin made him look unpatriotic and that a senior member of the intelligence community, possibly Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, might resign.
Trump also appeared to undercut his own message when he said that while he accepted that Russia had hacked the election, others could have been involved too: “There’s a lot of people out there.”
The problem here is that the President, far from throwing his weight behind the intelligence community’s findings that Russia intervened in the 2016 election, is yet again casting doubt on the authenticity of the assessment. Just as he did in Helsinki.
It is not the first case of Trump trying to clear up a self-created political disaster but digging in deeper. Many commentators have noticed the similarities between this episode and the time last year when the President equivocated on blaming neo-Nazis and white supremacists for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Scott Jennings, who was a special assistant to President George W. Bush, said Trump’s insistence on offering caveats to his statement defeated the purpose.
“It would have been better not to have done anything today at all, if you were going to throw that phrase in,” Jennings said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” describing the Helsinki debacle as a serious mistake and the low point of Trump’s presidency.
“Then you try to walk it back, and then the walk-back gets muddled because you didn’t get that exactly right, either.”
And it is one thing to vow to protect the US electoral system and offer the intelligence community “full faith and support,” as Trump did, safe in the White House.
It was the President’s failure to do so standing next to Putin – a US adversary who those same intelligence agencies accuse of interfering in the 2016 election to put him in office – that caused this controversy. His unwillingness to do so in Helsinki is why critics in Washington saw him as weak – an adjective that is always damaging to a President, especially when it is manifested during an appearance overseas.
Republicans show (a little) steel
One of the most striking aspects of the Helsinki fallout was the willingness of Republicans on Capitol Hill to at least implicitly criticize Trump — a step many have been unwilling to take in the past.
The most important Republican in Washington other than the President – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in his understated, courtly way – made his disapproval of Trump’s dismal appearance alongside Putin and his criticism of America’s Western allies quite clear.
The Kentucky Republican spoke to America’s allies in the way a normal President might, following Trump’s insult-a-thon through Europe before he met Putin.
“Let me just say to our European friends, we value the NATO treaty; it’s been the most significant military alliance in world history. We believe the European Union countries are our friends, and the Russians are not.”
McConnell also delivered the message to Putin that Trump had failed to give.
“I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018,” McConnell said.
Given that Congress forced Trump’s hand by passing sanctions on Russia to punish 2016 election interference – that the President had no choice but to implement because of their veto-proof majorities – McConnell was making no idle threat.
Yet were Republican lawmakers really intent on reining in the President they could do so much more – including holding hearings on what happened during the one-on-one encounter between Trump and Putin. They could pass resolutions – even though they would be nonbinding – to make clear their disapproval of Trump’s Russia policy. Congress could also make it harder for Trump to lift existing sanctions on Russia, in a way that could hamper his hopes to engage Putin further. None of that is yet on a fast track.
And the difficulty in building House and Senate majorities behind such steps underscores the political calculation that many Republicans are making.
Every day closer to November’s midterms, the President’s hold on his party and his high approval ratings among GOP voters become more significant, and may in the end ensure that Trump escapes the Helsinki debacle without political damage – at least with his own side.