War Stories

Trump Digs the Hole Deeper

His excuses and justifications for his performance in Helsinki were almost as bad as the debacle itself.

U.S. President Donald Trump discusses his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with House Republicans in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump discusses his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with House Republicans in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As appalling as President Trump’s appearance was on Monday in Helsinki, his meeting with congressional leaders back in Washington on Tuesday was…well, not worse, but only a little less disgraceful.

If some of the lawmakers sitting around the table in the White House had not yet regarded Trump as a habitual liar, they could not possibly have escaped that conclusion after this session. One of his lies was so gargantuan, and so obvious, that the lawmakers—and the viewers watching the broadcast of these remarks—could only conclude that Trump regards them as among the most gullible fools on the planet.

Trump said he wanted to clear up a misunderstanding about one of the most-lambasted statements at his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When a reporter fatefully asked him at that event whether he believed his intelligence agencies’ finding that Russia had meddled with the 2016 election, Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.” But now, 24 hours later, Trump claimed that he meant to say, “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be Russia.”

He added, “That probably clarifies things.” Yes, it clarifies that nothing Trump says can be trusted.

Go back and look at the tape or the transcript of the Helsinki press conference. Two points are clear. First, when Trump made that remark, he was not reading—or misreading—a formal statement; he was speaking spontaneously in response to a reporter’s question.

Second, and more to the point, the context of his remark clearly shows that he said what he meant to say. Right before the line in question, Trump said, “I have President Putin—he just said it’s not Russia.” And shortly after that line, Trump said, “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”

In other words, what Trump actually said in that sentence is consistent with what he said in the surrounding sentences—whereas the revised version of the sentence is utterly inconsistent. Another way of putting this: Trump’s revised version is completely incredible.

One slightly positive way to look at this twisted tale might be that Trump realizes that his words were appalling; and since he is all but incapable of admitting error, he decided that the only way to deal with the bad optics was to tell a big fib. Who knows, he might have thought the fib had a decent chance of working, at least with his cherished base. Certainly similarly blatant lies have gone over well enough in the past.

Beyond this lie, Trump did little to modify, much less reverse, the broad attitude, the complacency toward Russia and the kowtowing toward Putin, that shocked so many people—including normally pro-Trump commentators—as they watched the press conference. He did tell the lawmakers who were summoned to see him (ostensibly to talk about tax cuts, after cameras were removed from the room), “I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies” and “accept” their conclusion “that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.” However, he quickly added, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

In fact, the U.S. intelligence agencies concluded, without dissent, that the meddling was done not just by Russians and Russians alone, but by Russian military officers directed by Putin personally. Trump stopped short of accepting that verdict.

Trump also put a rosy glow on the whole summit with Putin without citing the slightest bit of supporting evidence—mainly because none exists. The two leaders, he said, talked about “some of the most pressing issues facing humanity”: the Syrian civil war and its humanitarian crisis, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and nuclear proliferation. But he said nothing about what he and Trump said about these issues, much less what they plan to do about them. To the extent they were brought up at the Helsinki press conference (and they were, though only by Putin), it was clear that the two leaders disagree on all of them.

“I entered the negotiations with President Putin from a position of tremendous strength,” Trump insisted, citing America’s “booming” economy and $700 billion military budget. But for most of the crises we face, neither the economy nor the huge military budget gives us a crucial edge. Whether we have an edge depends on what the president does with these assets, and there’s no sign that Trump has done anything.

He is still claiming (again, contrary to reality) that his meeting with the NATO allies a few days earlier had been a “tremendous success.” He once again insisted that his pressure tactics alone prodded America’s allies to spend more on defense. In fact, however, they started spending more in 2014, when Barack Obama was president, in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine; and as several allies said after the NATO summit in Brussels, they ignored Trump’s demands to spend more than they’d already planned.

The summit with NATO was an unbridled disaster. One result of Trump’s broad alienation of America’s traditional allies is that, on Tuesday, the EU signed a massive trade deal with Japan—excluding the United States and in protest of Trump’s tariff policies. The summit with Putin, of course, was such a catastrophe that even many of his supporters in Congress and the media have criticized him.

Trump invited the congressional leaders to the White House in order to buff his tarnished image. The meeting was the only item on his public schedule Tuesday; even the usual president’s daily briefing was canceled, perhaps because Trump did not want to hear about the world’s reactions to his summit.

It will be a test of our political system to see how long Trump will be able to avert his eyes from the truth—and how long his many enablers will continue to let him.