Facing condemnation from allies and foes alike on Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump was outnumbered even in the Oval Office. Top aides gathered to convince the president to issue a rare walk-back of the comments he’d made raising doubts about US intelligence conclusions of Russian election interference as he stood alongside Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton and chief of staff John Kelly stood united in the West Wing on Tuesday in their contention that the commander in chief had some cleanup to do. They brought with them words of alarm from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as from a host of congressional leaders and supporters of the president for whom Trump’s public praise of Putin proved to be a bridge too far.
Even for Trump, a leader who has increasingly come to cast off the constraints and guidance of aides, the him-against-the-world position proved untenable. Trump may like doing things his way, eschewing advice and precedent like no president before, but he never likes being alone.
Walking off stage with Putin following their joint press conference in Helsinki, Trump was riding high after his second summit with an adversarial leader in as many months. The highly choreographed affairs had been sought out by the US leader as a way to boost his credibility abroad and his favorability at home, and he believed the latest one had accomplished the task.
But as Air Force One took off into Finland’s endless sunlight on Monday night, Trump’s mood darkened.
He told confidants in the days that followed that he was pleased with how his summit with Putin went, believing he had taken the measure of the man and opened the door to deals down the road on a number of thorny issues.
But that was not how it was being portrayed back home.
On the long flight back to Washington, the president began dialing around to allies and aides and started to stew about negative media coverage, even from usually friendly Fox News, according to five outside allies and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
The reviews he received were muted — Trump rarely takes kindly to direct confrontation — but it was a taste of what awaited him on his return in Washington, where stalwart allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were speaking out.
Trump waited 27 hours, sent five tweets and sat for two television interviews after his initial comments in Helsinki before claiming he’d used a confusing “double negative” and meant “would” instead of “wouldn’t” in a key sentence at his press conference about who was responsible for election meddling.By the time he arrived home, the parade of critical statements had become a stampede, leaving Trump the most isolated he’d been in the White House since last year’s controversy over white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville. Some in the president’s circle saw parallels in the response to that incident, when the president walked back his August comments critical of “both sides” for protests in the Virginia city, only to later revert to his initial position — that both white supremacists and their detractors shared blame for the violence.
“The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t — or why it wouldn’t be Russia,” the president said Tuesday before a meeting with Republican members of Congress.
The next day brought a fresh challenge. Trump appeared to answer “no” to a reporter’s question asking whether Russia was still targeting the US. Hours later, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emerged to say Trump had merely tried to put a stop to the questioning by saying “no,” although he continued discussing Russia after that.
And Sanders created a fresh headache for the administration when she said the White House was still reviewing a proposal from Putin to allow access by Russian law enforcement officials to Americans whom the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes in return for US access to interrogations of Russian agents indicted for their alleged roles in interfering in the 2016 election. The State Department, by contrast, rejected the proposal — which Trump days earlier had called an “incredible offer — as “absurd.”
Many in the White House did not immediately see fault in Sanders’ comments that the West Wing was merely considering the Kremlin offer, but it provided fresh tinder for the bipartisan firestorm.
As each White House effort to clean up the situation failed to stem the growing bipartisan backlash, Trump’s mood worsened, according to confidants. He groused about his staff for not better managing the fallout. He was angry at the two American reporters, including one from The Associated Press, who asked questions at the Helsinki news conference. And he seethed at the lack of support he believed he received from congressional Republicans.
Also a target of the president’s ire was Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who issued a rare statement rebutting the president’s Monday comments. But it was Coats’ televised interview Thursday at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, that set off the president anew, as the intelligence director questioned the wisdom of the Putin meeting and said he had hoped Trump wouldn’t meet alone with the Russian leader.
It all left White House staffers in a fresh state of resignation about their jobs.
“I saw the screaming headline on cable TV that there is malaise in the West Wing and I look forward to meeting her,” quipped presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway. “I don’t see that.”