Daily Intelligencer Politics Chat: Fiasco in Finland

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to waiting media during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland.
President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin arrive to waiting media during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Chris McGrath

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I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m talking with three members of New York’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz — about Trump’s bizarre, disastrous press conference with Putin.

Ezekiel: So I thought a lot about what my first question should be about this Trump–Putin presser, and I think we should start here: what on earth?

Ed: Yeah. Events like this are almost always pre-wired to create no real news. Not this one.

Jon: I think I did my first-ever “oh my God” tweet during it.

Ed: Back during the Cold War, I once had a nightmare in which an obviously drunken Brezhnev appeared on global TV wearing a party hat and announcing an imminent nuclear strike on a supine USA. This wasn’t that bad, but was still pretty bad.

Eric: What really made it was the way Trump’s opening, pre-scripted remarks created the expectation that his heresy was going to be executed with some subtlety or cleverness. The whole “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than risk peace in pursuit of politics” shtick. And then the questions start, and every word out of his mouth is fodder for tweeting “pee tape” memes.

Jon: I made this point in my piece — he IS taking a political risk. But doesn’t that enhance the suspicion? Trump is all about politics. If it were President Rand Paul, you’d say, of course he is taking a risk, he cares about his kooky beliefs.

Eric: Yeah — I think that rhetoric sounds good or has potential superficial appeal. But the actual fact that Trump is legitimately subordinating politics to principle with respect to Russia is damning.

Ed: The timing is just bizarre: Here we are on the brink of a critical midterm election, when Trump ought to be focusing attention on the economy and the Kavanaugh thing. And instead, we have this totally unforced error. That simply attracts more attention to the worst fears about him. To make a point I suspect we’d all agree on, when you add this entire trip up, Trump appears to be trying to pull off a strategic repositioning of the U.S. that’s in line with his past rhetoric, but that I’m guessing not 2 percent of MAGA people were prepared to embrace. And it puts GOP unity to a real stress test at the worst possible moment.

Eric: I think Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot NATO’s secretary general and have more than 2 percent of MAGA people readily embrace it.

Ed: Okay, don’t take me literally on that, but it’s not in his wheelhouse. This is the sort of thing he should have done, if he did it at all, during a second term.

Eric: Yeah, both Trump and his party need to win more than the diehards, and this is obviously not going to win them votes with anyone. Hadn’t thought about Kavanaugh. But it does seem like it’ll help Democrats make his opinions on presidential immunity into a thing.

Jon: David French called this the foreign-policy equivalent of Charlottesville. That had a (temporary) impact on the polls, right?

Ed: Well, as I suggested in the take I wrote a bit earlier, it’s the optics of this that are potentially most disastrous: How much weaker could Trump have possibly looked?

Ezekiel: I think the reaction of Republicans and conservative media will help shape what the polling reaction is — but will any effect last until the midterms?

Ed: Regarding the midterms, it depends on some other variables, including the scary possibility that after this abject display of submission, Trump feels the need to show strength. This is indeed a threat to arguably one of the most important political developments of the last year: the total fusion of Trumpism with the conservative wing of the GOP.

Eric: Yeah, how Trump responds now will be revealing. The man does not like getting this kind of press.

Ed: I joked earlier that Trump’s next move would be to attend Warsaw Pact maneuvers. My first impulse was to suggest that this all shows the power of the Bannon wing of Trumpworld. It’s the timing that is most mystifying, though.

Eric: If he persists amid lukewarm coverage from Fox, the idea that it’s purely ego that’s making him toe this line will be (even) less credible.

Ezekiel: “Ego,” meaning he doesn’t want to acknowledge Russian interference because it makes his surprise election victory less credible?

Eric: That plus this:

The thing is, he already caved on this point last year. Trump formally acknowledged Russian involvement, then just went back to denying it weeks later.

Jon: It’s so easy to say Russia had no effect, didn’t change votes, etc.

Ed: There was some immediate commentary suggesting that it was like Trump was oblivious to the whole environment, and was simply trotting out the same talking points he normally uses on anything related to the Russia–Trump story.

Ezekiel: I’d bet money that his advisers spent at least half an hour coaching him on what not to say.

Jon: Again, they all opposed having this meeting at all.

Eric: Yeah, that’s what’s most striking to me about the whole thing. Trump could have made all the same substantive betrayals in a far less politically toxic manner.

Ed: Yeah. I’ve worked for pols where that’s the last thing you want to do. “Don’t say this, for God’s sake,” and then it’s the first thing out of their mouths.

Ezekiel: Yeah, there are many ways he could have threaded the needle, but he obviously had no interest in doing so.

Eric: Unless he genuinely believed that putting on this performance would expand the boundaries of political possibility, clear the way for 60 senators to vote for repealing the Magnitsky Act or something.

Jon: He’s a big Overton-window guy.

Ezekiel: Haha.

Ed: So, are our theories about this event diverse, as is often the case with this president, along the lines of “Was it stupid or crazy?”

Ezekiel: It’s a close cousin to the “stupid or evil” question. At high enough levels of incompetence, it’s hard to discern motives — this is the kernel of truth in that Douthat tweet.


Ed: Well, evil is a possibility here, too. The really evil option is that Trump has bought into the whole Bannon worldview.

Ezekiel: Brass tacks — what did we learn today?

Eric: Well, here’s my question: How possible is it that they’re still colluding in some tacit way? Like the actual stakes here are primarily (in my view) about whether Russia will be deterred from intervening in future elections on the Trumpist right’s behalf. Is there too much independence — and too little Trumpism — within America’s intelligence agencies to allow Trump to abet a second, more severe attack on the integrity of our elections. I guess that’s not any more answerable now than it was this morning. But I feel like that’s what matters most.

Ezekiel: I mean, if future collusion was the goal, you’d think that Trump would do the opposite of what he did today. It’s not like Trump needs to “signal” anything to Putin; they had a private meeting!

Eric: Right.

Jon: I think we learned that Trump is less interested in, or capable of, obscuring his ties to Russia and Putin than most of us thought. What kinds of transactions can be accomplished only by a private meeting? You need advisers to do diplomacy.

Ed: I’d prefer to let this marinate a while before taking away any big lessons. But my initial takeaway is that there are things — whether it’s ego or principle or monomania about Mueller — that matter to Trump more than looking “strong.”

Eric: I think we learned that Donald Trump’s ties to Russia are going to be a much bigger problem for Republicans in the home stretch of the 2018 campaign than most anticipated a couple weeks ago. Also, that Trump is an extremely bad politician.

Ezekiel: Haha.

Ed: I also think we should now entertain the rebuttable presumption that Trump really does want to realign the U.S. into the ally of Russia in a white Christian nationalist fight in which Europe is either a prize or the enemy. That’s what I meant by the “Bannon worldview” earlier.

Ezekiel: Yeah. That’s the Occam’s razor explanation, right? You can rationalize all of Trump’s bizarre behavior if you think he sees Putin as a good leader, and Russia as an ally he is loath to accuse.

Ed: Yes, in the sense that taking this sort of political risk to do something probably means it’s something he wants to do.

Jon: Let me pull back and offer this observation. I’ve been on this trail since 2016. A whole lot of things have happened since then that, if you predicted them before, would have come off as paranoid. If you predicted in January 2017 that Trump would defy every adviser to have a meeting with Putin, without any staff, and then afterward say he believes Putin over U.S. intelligence, praises Putin’s insane offer, etc., nobody would have believed it.

Eric: Trump is certainly, oddly deferential to or admiring of a wide variety of foreign autocrats, and his ethnonationalist, anti-Enlightenment worldview is genuinely more compatible with Putinism than Europe’s dominant, liberal ideology.

Ezekiel: And he likes autocracy and wishes he could be an autocrat (at an even deeper level than the average POTUS).

Ed: And he’s entirely comfortable with kleptocracy.

Eric: I could see the argument for it being largely ideological. But I think Occam’s razor suggests that his longtime financial relations with the Russian oligarchy inform his heretical posture, at least to some degree.

Ezekiel: All right, let’s wrap up. Closing thoughts? Is this a moment of truth for Republicans or will a few outraged statements be the end of it? Related: What should the congressional GOP do?

Ed: They’ll find a way out of the corner, but it will waste a lot of time and enthusiasm. They’ll begin by cataloguing every “Trump’s a traitor” comment from the left that they can find.

Eric: Russia hawks in the Senate should refuse to confirm a Supreme Court justice until Trump discloses any and all financial ties he has to Putin’s regime (by releasing his tax returns).

Ed: You’ve got to be kidding me. “Russia hawks in the Senate” would sell off the country to the nearest outlet of the Russia mafia for a SCOTUS confirmation.

Ezekiel: I asked what they should do as well, Ed. Haha.

Eric: There are enough anti-Russia Republicans in the Senate (with nothing to lose politically) to do something. “Country First.”

Ed: I’ve seen zero, and I do mean zero, inclination among Senate Republicans to take Kavanaugh hostage for anything.

Ezekiel: I agree that no Republican is going to put anything important to them on the line to check Trump.

Eric: I don’t disagree.

Jon: Me neither.

Daily Intelligencer Politics Chat: Fiasco in Finland