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Trump’s Putin fallout: Inside the White House’s tumultuous week of walk-backs

July 21, 2018 at 4:31 PM

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Over the course of three days, President Trump commented on Russian election interference in ways that repeatedly contradicted his own intelligence officials. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Executive time began early on Thursday, just after sunrise.

Feeling exasperated and feisty as he awoke in the White House residence, President Trump fired off his grievances on Twitter about how the media had been covering his Helsinki summit. And, refusing to be cowed, Trump gave national security adviser John Bolton an order: to schedule a second summit and officially invite Russian President Vladi­mir Putin to visit Washington.

The two presidents had already discussed the likelihood of a follow-up meeting, but at Trump’s direction Thursday morning, Bolton sprang into action to make it official, making an overture to the Kremlin. By ­midafternoon the White House announced that planning was underway for a fall summit in Washington.

The bulletin landed midway through a remarkably candid interview of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats at the Aspen Security Forum that underscored the disconnect and tension on Russia policy between Trump and his administration. The intelligence chief criticized Trump’s performance during the Helsinki summit and — taking a deep breath and then offering a prolonged grimace-laugh — made clear that he had no advance knowledge of the follow-up meeting with Putin.

“That’s going to be special,” Coats said wryly, as the crowd in Aspen, Colo., rallied around him in sympathy for his being left in the dark.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller attend a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 18, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For Trump and his White House, the days that followed the Helsinki summit amounted to an unofficial Walk Back Week — a daily scramble of corrections and clarifications from the West Wing. Each announcement, intended to blunt the global fallout from the president’s Russophilic performance in Helsinki, was followed by another mishap that fueled more consternation.

 Just as Trump prepared to decamp to his New Jersey golf course for the weekend and turn the page on a full week of Russia controversies, more bad news arrived Friday. Reports surfaced, first in the New York Times, that the FBI had a fall 2016 recording of Trump and his then-personal attorney, Michael Cohen, discussing payments to silence a former Playboy centerfold who alleged that she had an extramarital affair with Trump.

This portrait of a tumultuous week in the White House amid growing concerns over Trump’s approach to Russia comes from interviews with a dozen administration officials and Trump confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely recount private conversations.

The trouble started Monday in Helsinki, though the magnitude did not set in for Trump for several hours. Delighted with his own performance, he stepped offstage after his freewheeling, 46-minute news conference alongside Putin — in which he seemed to accept Putin’s denial of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. The president felt he had shown strength, an impression buoyed by two friendly interviews he did with Fox News Channel personalities before boarding Air Force One to return home from the Nordic capital.

But roughly an hour into the flight, Trump’s mood darkened and grim reality set in as he consumed almost universally negative cable news coverage and aides began reviewing pages upon pages of printed-out statements from fellow Republicans lambasting the president. Trump called his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to discuss the trip and his news conference, and he also huddled with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in his cabin at the front of the plane to strategize.

Much of the initial scrutiny focused on Trump’s taking the side of Putin over his own intelligence community, so Trump and his aides first settled on the president’s sending a tweet that reiterated, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.”

But that did not silence the uproar, and aides knew they had a big problem.

President Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin address a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Trump himself was flummoxed. He waxed on about his impressions of Putin up close — strong, smart and cunning, in Trump’s assessment — and told associates that he viewed the Russian as a formidable adversary with whom he relishes interactions. He also was furious with the negative media coverage of a summit that he felt had been a clear success. And he complained to some about what he viewed as an undercovered angle of the election controversy: That the Democratic National Committee allowed its server to be hacked.

Trump further grumbled about the tough question he was asked by Jonathan Lemire, an Associated Press correspondent, wondering why that reporter had been called on rather than someone who might have asked an easier question.

Lemire asked whether Trump would denounce Russia’s election interference to Putin’s face, “with the whole world watching,” and the president demurred. Aides tried to explain to Trump that nearly any journalist would have asked a similarly pointed question in that moment.

But, as one White House official said, “If you don’t like the answer, you don’t like the question.”

The president still was not satisfied. Later in the week, he told CNBC, “I had some of these fools from the media saying, ‘Why didn’t you stand there, look him in the face, walk over to him, and start shouting at him?’ I said, ‘Are these people crazy? I want to make a deal.’ ”

On Tuesday morning, Trump told friends he did not understand what the big fuss was about. But his advisers understood. A coterie of them — including Vice President Pence, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, counselor Kellyanne Conway, deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, Bolton and Sanders — met with Trump to draft a statement that he would deliver that afternoon seeking to clarify his Helsinki remarks.

Shine, new to his job, also wanted to change the narrative, and after a career as a Fox News executive, he focused on the imagery — eager for Trump to supplant the image of himself standing admiringly next to Putin with fresh content for cable news.

Trump personally reviewed first the transcript and then the video of his news conference and came up with the “double-negative” explanation that he ultimately provided — that when he said in Helsinki he saw no reason that the election hackers “would” be Russian, he had meant to say “wouldn’t.”

Initially, the president worried that his statement would be viewed as backing down or not toughing out the criticism — the sort of concessions he is loath to make. But senior advisers reassured him that if he had really meant to say that he didn’t see why Russian wouldn’t be to blame, he would be simply offering a clarification, not caving.

Clouding Trump’s judgment all week has been his apparent inability to distinguish between Russian “meddling,” of which there is overwhelming evidence, and Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign, which special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is still investigating, and which the president insists did not happen.

“The biggest problem is that he believes meddling equals collusion,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) “Nobody else believes that. I think he’s very sensitive about going there because he thinks it undercuts his legitimacy.”

By midweek Wednesday, some in Trump’s orbit believed he would emerge relatively unscathed.

“This president has weathered countless storms, and I think his political obituary has been written countless times and has to be rewritten,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “He has broken the mold when it comes to . . . what would have been a showstopper for any other politician.”

But there were showstoppers still to come. At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting focused on the economy, as staffers were ushering reporters out of the room, ABC News’s Cecilia Vega asked Trump whether he still believed the Russians were targeting the United States.

Amid the chaos, Trump looked at Vega and uttered one word: “No.”

Sanders and other aides in the Cabinet Room did not consider the president’s comment an answer to Vega’s question. But news organizations, including The Washington Post, alerted the news that Trump had yet again undermined his intelligence officials, who have been warning about active Russian threats. And the White House had a fresh crisis on its hands.

Sanders scrambled to reach the president, who had already departed for Joint Base Andrews to greet the family of a Secret Service agent whose remains were being returned from Scotland. The agent died after suffering a stroke in Scotland while there as part of the president’s support team. The press secretary delayed her afternoon briefing until after she had conferred with Trump, and relayed the president’s response.

“I talked to the president,” Sanders told reporters. “He wasn’t answering that question. He was saying, no, he’s not taking questions.”

But there was another problem for the administration. Sanders was questioned about Putin’s proposal that Mueller visit Moscow to interrogate Russian hacking suspects in exchange for Russians’ interrogating U.S. officials, including former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Trump had called Putin’s proposal an “interesting idea,” and Sanders did not rule it out — even though the State Department had dismissed it as “absurd.”

“The president will work with his team and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front,” said Sanders, who was careful not to declare policy from the lectern before first discussing the matter with Trump.

The episode revealed a naivete on the part of the president. White House aides fretted that Trump did not recognize the massive diplomatic and security implications of turning Americans over to an autocratic regime that jails and kills dissidents. State Department and National Security Council officials, and others, realized there would need to be another cleanup.

In a meeting Thursday morning, Trump’s national security team saw that the president was mostly focused on the sending-Mueller-to-Moscow part of the proposal — and not on a quid pro quo interrogation of a former U.S. ambassador. They focused him on the full scope of Putin’s suggestion, restating just why it was so problematic.

Later, after discussing the matter with Trump, Sanders issued the president’s final verdict, saying he disagreed with Putin’s proposal, which she said had been “made in sincerity.”

Meanwhile, in a senior staff meeting, Conway pointed out to the team that Coats would be sitting down for an interview with NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell before a gathering of thought leaders and media elite in Aspen. Conway warned her colleagues that Coats could generate headlines — and she was prescient.

The White House had little visibility into what Coats might say. The intelligence director’s team had turned down at least one offer from a senior White House official to help prepare him for the long-scheduled interview, pointing out that he had known Mitchell for years and was comfortable talking with her.

Coats was extraordinarily candid in the interview, at times questioning Trump’s judgment — such as the president’s decision to meet with Putin for two hours without any aides present beyond interpreters — and revealing the rift between the president and the intelligence community. The spectacle was all the more surprising considering that Coats is nicknamed “Marcel Marceau,” after the French mime, in national security circles because the director so rarely opines in the way he did with Mitchell.

Coats’s comments were received poorly inside the West Wing, where Trump advisers saw him as playing to his elite audience in Aspen at the expense of the president. One senior White House official said, “Coats has gone rogue,” and recalled another colleague’s suggesting, “He may as well just have said he was DNI for Obama.”

A U.S. official pushed back on the criticism, saying it is “not in Coats’s DNA” to seek the spotlight and that he would never try to embarrass the president.

In a statement issued Saturday, Coats said, “My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President.”

Still, the incongruous split-screen was striking. As the White House was brought low, struggling to emerge from a seemingly endless week of walk-backs from controversy, the crowd in Aspen seemed to be enjoying a high-altitude party.

When Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein gave remarks in Aspen about deterring foreign interference in U.S. politics, the sometimes target of Trump’s ire was given a hero’s welcome.

Several hundred people who were crammed into a roasting tent jumped to their feet when Rosenstein entered, and many stayed after his speech, hoping for a coveted souvenir: A selfie with the prosecutor overseeing the Mueller probe.

Shane Harris in Aspen, Colo., and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.


Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2017, after 11 years at the New York Times, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns and Congress, among other things.

Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. He previously has covered Congress, the Obama White House, and the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Rucker also is a Political Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He joined The Post in 2005 as a local news reporter.

Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal.

Carol Leonnig is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2000. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her work on security failures and misconduct inside the Secret Service.

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