Not his tawdriest moment as president, but his lowest. It was so disgraceful that I wonder if some cabinet member might resign in protest over it. Kelly’s the likeliest to go since he’s on his way out anyway but it could be any number of people — Coats, Wray, Mattis, Bolton, Pompeo. (Sessions will stay put if only to shield Rosenstein and Mueller.) Coats in particular has cause to resign after Trump all but declared him no more credible than Vladimir Putin:
Trump: "My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it's Russia. 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." pic.twitter.com/p6kfkGw5pC
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) July 16, 2018
“I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Standing right next to the tsar himself, he couldn’t accept an invitation from the media to vouch for his own intelligence bureau, rambling about the FBI’s failure to secure the DNC’s server instead. Later a reporter tried to give him a do-over on this morning’s “Blame America First” tweet by asking him what, specifically, he holds Russia responsible for. That was his cue to launch into an attack on … the Mueller probe, three days after the special counsel accused Russia of hacking Americans to influence an election. He’s mad at the Americans investigating Putin for interference more than he’s mad at Putin for interfering, calling the Russiagate investigation “a disaster for our country.” What a fraud nationalist “patriotism” is.
Reporter: Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? If so, what would you consider them responsible for?@POTUS: Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish. https://t.co/ayZoKGvWxk pic.twitter.com/dTQKG00eL4
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 16, 2018
Yesterday he called the EU a “foe” because it’s a trade competitor. Today he’s spinning for Russia with Putin five feet away. Even his own deputies won’t spin it:
Senior White House official to @jeffzeleny: "How bad was that?"
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) July 16, 2018
It was so bad that even libertarians like Justin Amash, who spend most of their time criticizing the U.S. for bellicosity when discussing foreign policy, thought he came off weak in defense of the country:
A person can be in favor of improving relations with Russia, in favor of meeting with Putin, and still think something is not right here.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) July 16, 2018
Everyone who watched this morning’s presser came away from it more inclined to believe that “something is not right here,” which makes the summit a political disaster even before any deals have been struck. If Putin has something on Trump, at least that would make Trump’s behavior understandable; one can understand fear of blackmail. What’s darker and less fathomable is the possibility that Putin has nothing on him yet Trump’s ego is so brittle that he can’t tolerate the suggestion that Russia helped him to victory in 2016 even at a moment when it’d benefit him to do so. When you’re onstage with Putin himself, selling yourself as a strongman and MAGA super-patriot, with the entire western world suspicious of your commitment to the post-war order, it’s obviously in your interest to talk as tough as possible about Russia. If nothing else, it would give you a killer rebuttal the next time you’re accused of being soft on Putin: “You saw how ‘soft’ I was on him onstage in Helsinki, didn’t you?” Instead he choked. As it is, one of the better arguments now for believing that Trump hasn’t been compromised by Russia is that a true Russian asset wouldn’t be this obvious about it.
The best argument, though, is that Trump’s policies have been harder on Russia than his rhetoric has. It reminds the most confounding thing about his White House that despite his pitiful dismissal of Russian interference and public wooing of Putin, he’s not unwilling to sign off on hawkish measures after lobbying from aides. Tim Miller and Jamie Kirchick went back and forth on that this morning. On the one hand there’s loads of Russia-friendly stuff from Trump like skepticism towards NATO, tariffs on American allies, and EU antagonism paired with support for European nationalist parties. On the other hand there’s arming Ukraine, sanctions on Russian oligarchs, confrontations with Russia in Syria, and so on. It may be that the blast of criticism he’s going to get after the summit will nudge the pendulum back towards hawkishness inside the White House. That’s the brightest shade of lipstick I can put on that pig of a press conference.