President Donald Trump on Thursday played a tough hand as well as could be expected, likely pleasing his lawyers and political aides, as he tried to quell a new firestorm over Russia that threatens to overshadow his visit to Paris.
The President, in France as guest of honor ahead of Bastille Day celebrations on Friday, mixed a defense of his political woes with an attempt to bolster his reputation as a statesman at a chummy news conference at the Elysee Palace with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The big question that had been simmering for days was how Trump would handle revelations about his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last year with a Russian lawyer he believed was peddling dirt about Hillary Clinton.
“My son is a wonderful young man,” Trump said, later adding, “Nothing happened in the meeting.”
And he said that it represented nothing out of the ordinary because: “Politics is not the nicest business in the world.”
While that line will not end the controversy, it may be the best defense the White House has and it could be enough to get the President through the current trip without making the situation worse.
It may also resonate with Trump’s supporters and Republicans outside of Washington more than it does with media organizations and political critics primed to point out every inconsistency in Trump’s rhetoric.
Just as important as what Trump said was the way he said it.
Following reports that the President was frustrated and furious about the new twist to the Russia intrigue, he came across as calm and self-contained Thursday.
Trump previewed his surprisingly upbeat mood in an off-the-record session with reporters Wednesday night on Air Force One as he flew to France, portions of which were later published by the White House. He offered a clue to his resilience, even as the Russia storm pounds his administration, when he lauded the support of the people who made him the President.
“They feel it’s a witch hunt, the people. There are a lot of people. And those people vote. They don’t stay home because it’s drizzling. We proved that,” he said.
Trump’s mellow mood at the news conference appeared to stem partly from the four days he spent out of sight from the American people, after returning from a controversial trip to Europe at the weekend.
People close to the President said that his fury that exploded as he watched rolling coverage of his son’s disclosure of emails about the meeting with the Russian lawyer gradually subsided before he headed to France.
His spirits were buoyed by the younger Trump’s interview on Fox News on Tuesday, which the President and his allies deemed a success.
“He was very positive and very happy with what Don Jr. had done the night before,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who met with the President on Wednesday in the Oval Office to discuss tax reform. “I think he felt (the narrative) was subsiding in his favor.”
A senior administration official said Trump was also pleased with his attorney Jay Sekulow’s performance on the morning shows Wednesday morning, which included a 28-minute interview on CNN.
Trump, an avid golfer, was also cheered by visits from two professional golfers who joined him Wednesday in the Oval Office.
The President spent time Wednesday morning with five-time major champion Phil Mickelson and later palled around with a big-hitting John Daly, who grinned and wore a Hawaiian shirt as he posed with the President and Gingrich in the Oval Office.
“As a person, he was just having a good day,” Gingrich told CNN.
Can it last?
By Thursday, Trump was in the right frame of mind to field questions about Trump Jr. at a news conference.
Of course, like any such event news conference involving a President as unorthodox as Trump, there were curiosities, open loops and sometimes a questionable relationship with facts.
But Trump clearly got out of the hotly awaited encounter without exacerbating his considerable political problems, something that can not always be said for his attempts to tamp down controversies – especially those on Twitter.
Trump also carried off the symbolism surrounding the visit to Paris.
He offered Macron some political cover in return for his effusive welcome of a President who is deeply unpopular in France, and the rest of Europe, hinting there could be some moderation of the US opposition to the Paris climate accord. And he reached back into history to reaffirm the shared bonds linking French and American democracy and liberal political thought.
Trump’s demeanor and performance was important for both domestic and foreign policy.
His two foreign trips so far have unfolded amid intense controversy and have presented him as increasingly isolated on the international stage – though his supporters see his disruptive “America First” approach as exactly what they voted for.
Macron’s effusive welcome of the President was a nod to that reality and a sign that he intends to be a bridge between Washington and the rest of Europe, while not ceding ground on the key issues like climate that matter to him most.
The strength of their relationship was clear when Trump deftly defused a controversy over his own derogatory comments about Paris during the campaign, when he suggested terrorism had ruined the City of Light.
He said Paris would be “just fine” because “you have a great President who was also tough. You have somebody that’s going to run this country right.”
More positive, but questions not going away
Despite some positive feelings, Trump’s defense of his son does have holes that won’t be plugged soon, however.
Republicans, not just Democrats, are now calling for Trump Jr. to testify about the meeting on Capitol Hill.
And Trump’s contention that the meeting was just run-of-the-mill appears to fly in the face of regular campaign practice as well as comments by his nominee for FBI director, Christopher Wray, Wednesday that any political campaign that got approached by Russia should call the bureau.
And the President’s contention that the lawyer who met his son, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was not a Russian government lawyer ignored the email chain that showed Trump Jr was told that a “Russian government attorney” would meet him as part of an attempt to help his father’s campaign.