Team Trump Is in Chaos Over Putin's White House Visit
It's been four days since President Trump stood on the stage in Helsinki and pledged fealty to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Well, OK -- he didn't actually pledge fealty, he just implied it in his eagerness to please his counterpart. Perhaps this wouldn't have seemed so obvious if he hadn't insulted America's closest allies in the run-up to the meeting and then maligned his own intelligence agencies as being no more reliable than Putin himself.
The immediate firestorm was fierce but it's obvious that Republicans desperately want the president to find a way to settle this controversy and move on to the next one. Unfortunately, Trump can't seem to help making things worse, so the fire is still burning out of control.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders set everyone on edge all over again. She failed to tamp down suspicion that Trump had really meant it when he'd said during the press conference that he thought Putin had made an "incredible offer" to allow Robert Mueller to come to Russia to interview the military officers he'd indicted -- in exchange for allowing Russian prosecutors to interview Americans, including Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia. People believed Trump might actually do it because, after the first meeting between the two presidents in 2017, Trump had sounded like a delighted young fanboy when Putin suggested that the two countries should create a "cybersecurity task force" to share top-secret information.
That idea was shot down by the experts, but Trump still loves it. He and Putin brought it up again at the press conference. It's that kind of eager-beaver gullibility that shows Trump is obtuse enough not to understand when he's being played. Since nobody knows anything about what happened in his private chat with Putin, it's fair to be extremely suspicious.
Sanders clarified her initial statement on Thursday, saying, "It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it." Trump apparently saw into Putin's soul, as George W. Bush once did, and knew he was sincere. It sure didn't sound like Trump disagreed with him at the time although, to be fair, he probably didn't have a clue what Putin was really suggesting.
Tellingly, after the White House issued that statement the Senate still voted 98-0 on a non-binding resolution that the United States should refuse to make its diplomats available to Russian prosecutors. Yes, they actually felt the need to put that concept to a vote.
Unfortunately, the Senate Republican majority couldn't bring itself to vote on proposed resolutions urging the president to take a tougher stand against Russia and protect the Mueller investigation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did say that the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees would look at the possibility of further sanctions if Russia interferes in our elections again. As tepid and impotent as that is, it's more than we've seen up until now.
As I mentioned here on Thursday, Republicans have eliminated election security spending in this year's budget, and voted down Democratic efforts to restore it. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, currently under a cloud for failing to report sexual abuse as a wrestling coach at Ohio State, offered this pithy observation:
House Republicans also declined to subpoena Trump's State Department interpreter for a closed session on Capitol Hill to determine what was said at the Helsinki meeting, since the president refuses to tell anyone. That includes Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who revealed in a live interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum that he had not been read in on the substance of the meeting, which is truly stunning even for the Trump administration.
Trump mentioned Coats by name in Helsinki and seemed peeved that the director had given a speech the previous Friday in which he reiterated that the Russians had interfered in the election and said they were doing it again. According to the Washington Post, Trump was even more irked by Coats' post-Helsinki statement standing by the intelligence community, which Trump had just slighted on the world stage. Nonetheless, the president was persuaded it would be a problem if Coats abruptly resigned, so he praised him in an interview on Wednesday.
There has been some speculation that the White House made the announcement at that moment in order to rattle Coats, whose comments were being carried live on all three cable news networks. But with this White House, it may just as easily have been the usual incompetence that made the insane news of a Putin invitation into an even more surreal moment than it already was.
The Post reports that administration insiders are furious with Coats for "going rogue," so his days are likely numbered one way or the other. It's possible that FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has run the bureau for less than a year, could be next. In his own Aspen interview, Wray didn't deny that he had contemplated resigning in the wake of the Helsinki meeting. But we've seen this sort of thing before. Trump's appointees get wobbly but always come back to the fold, at least until Trump finally orders one of his minions to fire them.
The president has apparently still told no one what was discussed in that meeting. Putin and his ministers seem to be talking freely about it, however. A Russian defense official said the two nations have come to an agreement on Syria, although the U.S. Army general in charge of the region says he has heard nothing about it.
Putin himself reportedly told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal for a referendum in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to mention it until Trump had a chance to "mull it over." So of course the Russian leader mentioned it, likely in order to force Trump's hand in this overheated environment and make him take Putin's side.
If we didn't know better we might think that Trump was waiting for Putin to make the details from their meeting public. Whether it's because Trump didn't understand what was happening and can't ask anyone for fear of accidentally crossing the Russian president or because that was their agreement is impossible to say.
Instead of calming things down, Trump has now invited the foreign leader who ordered his military intelligence to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to visit Washington shortly before the next election. This firestorm has just had a tanker full of gasoline poured all over it. It's going to be harder and harder for Donald Trump and his loyalists to put it out.