On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”
The message seemed clear: The entire investigation into Russia’s active interference in the 2016 election was a “hoax.” Which would be somewhat odd, given that the intelligence community unanimously concluded that Russia not only worked to meddle in the election but did so to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. But, given Trump’s repeated refusal to acknowledge that fact – including while standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki, Finland – it all made a weird sort of sense.
Except, of course, when Trump said, “it is all a big hoax,” he wasn’t actually talking about the Russia investigation currently being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. At least according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. “He’s referring to the claim that his campaign had anything to do with it,” she explained to reporters Monday morning.
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Which, um, OK. Maybe in a vacuum that explanation makes sense. Maybe. But the context of Trump’s last week suggests a simple pattern: Trump says or tweets what he believes and then his White House staff tries to explain it away even as he kind of, sort of works to undermine their explanations. The result is a President and a White House choking on their own contradictions and falsehoods on an issue – a rogue nation meddling in our democracy – that sits at the heart of the American experiment.
Let’s go through some of that context.
Seven days ago in Helsinki, Trump refused to condemn Putin for election interference – and instead said that both Russia and the United States were to blame for the election meddling. He added that he had asked Putin directly whether Russia orchestrated a interference campaign. “He just said it’s not Russia,” said Trump. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The following day – so, Tuesday – Trump was forced to issue the rarest of rarities for him: A clarification. Reading slowly from a message written on a piece of paper in front of him, Trump said that he had meant to say “wouldn’t” rather than “would” in the sentence above. It should have read, according to Trump, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be” – meaning he figured Russia had meddled.
There was no explanation offered for why – if this was all one big misunderstanding over a mistaken word choice – Trump didn’t see fit to correct it in either of the interviews he gave with Fox News between when he held the press conference with Putin on Monday and when he issued the clarification Tuesday.
Then came an exchange on Wednesday between Trump and a reporter who asked him whether Russia was still targeting the US. “No,” Trump replied – setting off an entirely new controversy. But, wait, said Sanders! Trump wasn’t responding to the question of whether Russia is targeting the US, he was simply saying “no,” he didn’t want to take any questions. Except, well, he took several more questions after that “no” response.
Maybe one of these incidents could be explained away by a slip of the tongue. Or a media misinterpretation. But three “misunderstandings” in a single week? All about the same topic? Seems extremely unlikely.
The reason for all of this confusion and clashing messaging is simple: The President of the United States has a set of convictions as it relates to Russia and their attempts to interfere in the 2016 election that are directly at odds with the nation’s intelligence community and everyone else (not named Devin Nunes) in a position to know what they are talking about.
Trump is unwilling/incapable of decoupling these two ideas: 1) Russia tried to meddle in the election to help him and 2) He is President anyway. Acknowledging the first doesn’t invalidate the second. Russia can have tried to cheat the system and Trump could have won fair and square anyway.
Everyone around him sees that. The Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA director. The FBI director. The Director of National Intelligence. And what they also see is that Russia is already back at their meddling, buoyed by the successes they achieved in 2016.
Even as Russia plots – and executes that plan – the White House remains stuck in neutral in dealing with that threat. Because the President just can’t bring himself to say these sentences: Yes, Russia tried to interfere in our election. I didn’t collude with them and there was no impact on the outcome. Still, Russia has proven itself to be a bad actor on the national stage and I will treat them that way until their behavior changes.
Instead, Russia is choking Trump’s presidency – and sowing chaos in the country. Which is exactly what Putin wants.