The president’s first reaction to the firestorm of bipartisan criticism he received over his words and conduct at yesterday’s Helsinki post-summit press conference with Vladimir Putin was characteristically belligerent:
But in the course of the morning, the people around Trump, and perhaps some of his congressional allies, prevailed upon him to attempt some damage control on one key issue, instead of the usual aggressive spluttering. And so he spoke briefly to reporters before a meeting on the Hill, and focused on his inflammatory comment suggesting he trusted Putin’s word over U.S. intelligence agencies when it came to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Here’s what Trump said in Helsinki:
“My people came to me — [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki, standing next to Putin. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
And here’s his walk back today:
“I have full faith in our intelligence agencies,” Trump told reporters Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement. “There is a need for some clarification. It should have been obvious, it ought to have been obvious.”
He added: “In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word “would” instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ … The sentence should’ve been, and I thought it would be maybe a little but unclear on the transcript … ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. You can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things by itself.”
The other way to put it is that the president is executing a 180-degree turn, while suggesting that the original utterance reflected a grammar issue.
That doesn’t meet anybody’s smell test, but at least he got the right formulation on the record. But there are two remaining problems, other than the credibility of his walk back. The first is that this wasn’t the only questionable statement made by Trump before or during the press conference. There was also his generous concession to Putin and his Soviet predecessors that the U.S. was as much to blame as the Russians for bilateral tensions. And he hasn’t answered questions about exactly what he and Putin said to each other in the long “summit” meeting that occurred before the disastrous presser.
More importantly, though, nothing Trump can now say or do can efface the terrible optics of the Helsinki event. This was my own, and hardly unusual, first reaction:
In the brightest international spotlight side by side with the foreign leader he has most admired for his toughness, Donald Trump looked weak and submissive, incapable of expressing any sort of righteous indignation at even the most blatant bad behavior by Russia.
The fact that the America First alpha dog looked like anything other than the leader of the pack in the company of Vladimir Putin is a bit of self-inflicted damage that can’t be explained away. It’s already a bit too late for the White House to suggest the president was suffering from a mysterious ailment that robs its sufferer of courage and self-possession. He’s going to have to live Helsinki down for some time yet.