Will Trump Go Off the Rails Again About the Putin Press Conference?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It did not even take eleven months for Donald Trump to go from the Charlottesville self-revealing crisis to the Helsinki self-revealing crisis.  True, he has had plenty of crises in between, most of which have also in one way or another revealed his true self -- perhaps most prominently his putting-children-in-cages-and-lying-about-every-aspect-of-it display of abject cruelty that is still ongoing, but also including his decisions to fire and humiliate staff, withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal with no alternative in place, insult and threaten democratic allies, unconditionally befriend North Korea's murderous dictator, declare victory in the War on Poverty as an excuse to inflict further harm on poor people, and on and on and on -- but there is something about his embrace of white supremacists and his even tighter embrace of Vladimir Putin that sets these two crises apart.

One way to know that these crises are different is simply by watching how flustered Republicans become when dealing with various public relations crises, and they are truly panicking right now (as they did after Charlottesville).  That is not to say that Republicans are going to do any more now than they did last August after Trump's "very fine people" reference to a crowd of hateful men shouting "Jews will not replace us!"  If anything, Republicans this time seem not to care enough even to try to pretend that they are thinking about taking action.  Still, their defensiveness and worry that Trump might actually be doing irreparable damage to their electoral chances (because principle means nothing to them, of course) is "blinking red," to co-opt a phrase much in the news recently.

But even beyond the tumult among Republicans, the more telling common aspect of the two big crises is Trump's response to criticism.  He never takes criticism well, of course, and he always defends himself with a blur of lies and distractions, but when it comes to white supremacists and Putin/dictators, Trump cannot contain his disappointment upon learning that his true views are utterly toxic.

In the haze of Trump-induced news fatigue, it is easy to forget key details.  A quick check of the public record, however, provides a useful reminder that Trump's meltdown after the Charlottesville disaster was actually a three-act play that went from bad to worse to disgusting.  In his first act, Trump offered clear support for the neo-Nazis by talking about bad actions "on many sides, on many sides."  People appropriately erupted in condemnation, and Trump then read a scripted statement that pretty much said the right things.

As soon as that second act was over -- and not knowing, of course, that a third act was yet to come -- I published "Trump Has the Opposite of a Poker Face" here on Dorf on Law, in which I tried to describe how transparent Trump's insincerity had been when he delivered his "clarification" about the many-sides controversy.  Among other things, I approvingly quoted Andy Borowitz's satirical article "Man in Hostage Video Forced to Recite Words Not His Own," which included the observation that Trump's "robotic performance" as well as his "facial expressions and body language convinced experts that the act of reciting the prepared text was an extraordinary ordeal for him."

My ultimate point in that column was that Trump's demeanor always gives him away.  I reviewed a couple of Trump's more revealing moments -- his sort-of backtracking about whether John McCain is a hero along with a more obscure moment when he was completely confused about the statement that the Oval Office has no corners in which a president can hide -- as a lead-in to discussing Trump's obvious unhappiness about having to back down from his defense of white supremacists.

As I described in that column, law professors will surely use Trump's performances as examples of why the legal system respects the credibility assessments of juries.  No unbiased observer of Trump's performances could observe his facial expressions, his shrugs, his dismissive gestures, and everything else and fail to see through his insincere recitations of scripted attempts at damage control.

And sure enough, within mere hours of my column being published, Trump launched into Act 3, in which he broke free of his not-quite-apology and then made matters worse with his tirade at a press conference that included the now-infamous "very fine people" comment.  And it was not just that one three-word phrase that was problematic.  Trump could barely contain himself as he hijacked his own press interaction to say, in essence, "Forget what I said that sounded contrite.  I'm still with those guys, and there's nothing any of you can do about it."

After this week's submissive Helsinki performance next to an alpha-dog Putin, Trump again found himself besieged.  And for good reason.  Trump's obsequious refusal to confront Putin (apparently to protect Trump's need to believe in his election's legitimacy) was, after all, so bad that people with serious national security credentials could credibly describe his betrayal of American's intelligence services as "nothing short of treasonous."

Again, there is no reason to think that Republicans are thinking about putting out an all-points-bulletin to find their patriotism and impeach/convict Trump, but it is telling that one of the Trump people's responses to the new charge of treason is to say that it somehow proves that all of the other impeachable offenses are no longer relevant.  "Oh, so now it's treason?  I guess you're admitting that there was no collusion and that obstruction of justice does not count as a 'high crime and misdemeanor,' eh?"

As with so many of the arguments offered in defense of Trump, this one is embarrassingly easy to swat away.  It is as if Trump's people cannot conceive of a person being charged with multiple crimes.  "Wait, your honor, the prosecution first said that he was guilty of breaking and entering, and now they're saying that he committed grand larceny.  So I guess the breaking and entering thing is off the table, right?"

In any event, the three-act play after Charlottesville last year came to mind this week when Trump attempted to engage in some post-Helsinki damage control.  This time, even as he was reading someone else's words of reassurance that "I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place" -- a formulation that itself is deliberately obfuscatory regarding the known purpose of what "took place" -- Trump's obvious discomfort was so extreme that he could not stop himself from vamping, "It could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there."

As Stephen Colbert put it: "No! You shanked even that! You either accept it was Russia, or say it could be other people. You can’t do both. ‘I, Donald, take you, Melania, to be my lawfully wedded wife. Although, I could take other people too -- there’s a lot of people out there."  Trump simply cannot fake sincerity when it comes to these things.

Because of that, I came very close to posting a very short comment here on Dorf on Law that night.  Had I had time to do so, I would have said something like this: "This is not over.  I hereby offer a testable prediction: Trump will say something soon that makes all of this much worse, along the lines of his 'very fine people' comment."

In describing that prediction as testable, I was saying that I could be proved wrong.  And so far, I have been wrong, at least inasmuch as Trump has not yet made things notably worse than they already were.  Even so, and although I might yet be proved right, it is obvious at this point that his not-quite-Charlottesville followups are not going well, to say that least.

There is, of course, his claim that he knew even during the press conference that the video and transcripts might not pick up the word "wouldn't" in what he now claims to have said: "I don’t see any reason why it wouldn't be" Russia that attacked our democratic elections.  And sure enough, the video and transcript are 100 percent clear that Trump said "would," not wouldn't, and he even emphasized the word.

Now, of course, we are being hit with the usual blizzard of nonsensical spin.  Trump came very close to having another Act 3 moment when he said "no" after being asked, "Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?" but sure enough, Sarah Huckabee Sanders soon claimed that he was saying "no" to taking more questions.  (Do Michelle Wolf and the owner of that restaurant in Virginia now receive retroactive mea culpas from the people who said that they were too hard on poor Sarah?)

And the latest unfunny joke is that Trump is now simply asserting that he was super tough with Putin when they met without witnesses for two hours before their press conference.  If that were true -- and there is no way that it is true -- why would it have taken him three days to remember to say so?

In any case, the safest prediction is that this will all lead to nothing, and within a few weeks or less, the press will be reporting that there was an uptick in Trump's approval numbers.  As I noted after the news about children being ripped away from their mothers at the border hit the headlines, that is how the horse-race aspect of political coverage has made Trump essentially untouchable.

Being "fair" in the standard journalistic sense means reporting news that is favorable to Trump, when it exists, but more importantly it has to be "new" news, which means that this will all become as easily forgotten as, say, the last ten or twenty mass shootings in the country.

Meanwhile, there is no reason to think that Trump believes anything other than what he has made obvious over and over again: Putin is his friend, the Russian investigation is an outrage, and we do not need to defend ourselves from further attacks.  Sounds like treason to me, but apparently not to Republicans.