Putin summit 'fundamentally different' from past Trump controversies, experts say
President Donald Trump chalked up comments that had resulted in 27 hours of harsh bipartisan criticism of his apparent deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin to a simple misstatement Tuesday, an explanation experts say is unlikely to put the issue to rest.
At the start of a meeting with House Republicans at the White House, Trump claimed he intended to say he did believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election when he said he saw no reason why it would be Russia at a press conference in Helsinki, Finland on Monday.
"The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or why it wouldn't be Russia,’" Trump said.
Trump stressed Tuesday that he trusts the intelligence community’s assessment, but he immediately qualified that remark.
"I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place," he said, adding, "It could be other people also. A lot of people out there."
After the two-hour meeting with Putin Monday, the leaders faced aggressive questioning from the press about the election interference issue. Putin remained firm in his denial but Trump equivocated, attempting to offer confidence in his intelligence agencies while also suggesting he believes Putin.
“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” he said, referring the director of national intelligence. “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.”
As clean-up efforts go, political strategists were unimpressed by the correction Tuesday. Republican strategist David Payne warned Trump’s revised comments are apt to fan the flames rather than extinguish them.
“In trying to make it look like a verbal slip, he should have paired this shoulder-shrugging explanation with a statement that puts pressure on Russia and commits to holding them accountable,” he said.
Given Trump’s past reaction to backlash over public comments, Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor at Boston University, had expected the president to double down on his position rather than admit to an error.
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“This is very different from his usual response, which might show he understands the political and international gravity of what he has stepped in,” he said.
Trump’s initial comments Monday drew widespread criticism from the left and right, even from some of his typical GOP defenders.
"President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately," tweeted former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Republican leaders who often sidestep questions about Trump’s behavior offered rare public rebukes.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” current House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
This has, more or less, happened before.
Last summer, Trump faced bipartisan fury for blaming “both sides” after a white nationalist allegedly ran over a counter-protester in Charlottesville. Before he even became president, Trump was disowned by many Republicans when an audiotape of him bragging about sexual assault was released.
Every time Republicans have run away from Trump, within weeks much of the party has again rallied behind him. With the caveat that Trump’s political career has so far been nothing if not unpredictable, experts say this dust-up may be different.
“Without a doubt, it’s fundamentally different,” Payne said. “What he did in the press conference with Putin was he exhibited a new characteristic, and it’s a brazen willingness to take a position that most of his own supporters disagree with.”
Most Trump controversies involve the president insulting a person or organization, but this was a judgment on a matter of national security and it is one that made him look weak.
“This time, it went against the grain of the Trump brand, which is tough, always being on top, being the boss, setting the tone, and none of that happened during that press conference,” Berkovitz said. “That’s what I think is going to be damaging to him. He came across as subservient, as weak, and to Putin of all things.”
Recalling Trump’s campaign boast that he could commit murder in the middle of a Manhattan street and not lose support, Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said this may test that theory.
“It does make you wonder whether, were the president to actually shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Ave., would anyone be surprised by it,” he said. “We’re inching closer to that level.”
The White House has already begun pushing back, blaming “fake news” and suggesting critics are placing politics before peace. At this point, that may not be a sufficient response.
“Not even close,” Payne said. “If he’s wise, he’s going to clarify and revise his position It left Americans alarmed, concerned, wondering what’s going on in Donald Trump’s head.”
Trump has often succeeded in blaming the media for negative perceptions of his actions, but that may be a stretch this time.
“They’re telling the story in the most straightforward way possible,” Payne said. “They’re showing the clips of him at the press conference. There’s not much filter there.”
With White House officials already on script, Ferson said the “fake news” narrative could work unless Trump’s defense of Putin has real-world political or economic ramifications they cannot ignore.
“Short of that, I think it’s more reality TV theater,” he said.
The Republican outrage is unlikely to extend much beyond sternly-worded statements of concern. With midterm elections, a Supreme Court nomination, and an entire legislative agenda at stake, they have little to gain politically from challenging a president who remains exceedingly popular with nearly 90 percent of their base.
“Not to be cynical, but this is all, right now—short of Russia lobbing some nuclear weapons across a border—all about the midterm elections,” Ferson said.
Republican incumbents may be watching polls closely to see if support for Trump among their base shifts at all. If he continues to hold sway over their voters, they will face difficult questions about their stance on Russia.
“I think electeds are always afraid, if I stick my neck out too far, will I pay the price for it down the road? Is Donald Trump going to come after me?” Payne said.
The breadth of Republican criticism coming from the president’s GOP enemies and allies alike, many of whom are up for reelection in November, may change that calculation somewhat.
“It means that the Republican establishment is maybe starting to draw a line in the sand. Maybe the Republican establishment is starting to realize that this could be damaging to them,” Berkovitz said.
Some Republicans are already walking back their criticism.
"I’m just glad he clarified it. I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time, and suffice it to say that for me as a policy maker, what really matters is what we do moving forward,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The Putin press conference capped off an international jaunt that played out much as Trump’s critics had feared. After haranguing NATO allies over spending in Brussels and publicly undermining British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump traveled to Helsinki and handed a major political victory to Putin.
“This has not improved the standing of the U.S. in the world,” said Gerard Toal, a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University. “This has damaged the image of the U.S. This has raised questions about U.S. credibility toward its allies, its commitment to certain ideals, so I think that one is likely to see greater soberness on the part of European members of NATO as to the circumstances they find themselves in.”
Toal, author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus,” also expects the summit to boost Putin’s standing at home, where his popularity has been lagging but state-controlled media will inevitably present a very positive spin on events.
“I think that amongst the Russian population writ large this will be another confirmation of the standing of Vladimir Putin in international affairs, his experience, his capacity to represent Russian interests on the world stage,” he said.
While he rejected Trump’s insistence that his divisive behavior in Brussels was intended to strengthen NATO, Toal said Trump’s relative retreat from the alliance may prove beneficial in the long run.
“The upside of this, if there is one, is that in the long structural arc of change, the U.S. is in relative decline and needs its allies to pick up more of the burden of the liberal world order it created,” he said. “To the extent Trump has provided a nasty acceleration of that process, it has potentially moved things forward so the EU is able to think more about defense.”
Ferson acknowledged potential for Trump’s actions to cause lasting international damage, but the president’s resiliency in the wake of past domestic political controversies has left him skeptical.
“The question is, will it actually result in Russia doing something they wouldn’t otherwise have done, or another actor?” Ferson said. “Is there a real consequence to what appears to be just straight-up crazy? If there isn’t, then the world has behaved the way Republicans have here, which is to say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Now we return to normal.’”