Opinion writer

Is there a single person anywhere who believes President Trump’s laughably insincere attempt to walk back his disastrous news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

We’ve seen this scenario before: Trump says something appalling; his aides scramble to convince him that he needs to do damage control; he reluctantly agrees to read a prepared statement doing so; then soon after he reverses himself, insisting that what he said originally was correct.

In this case, it was his statement in Helsinki, as Putin smirked next to him, that when American officials told him about Russian interference in the 2016 election, “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” So here is how Trump’s advisers convinced him to try to do damage control:

It should have been obvious — I thought it would be obvious — but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t.” The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t — or why it wouldn’t be Russia. So just to repeat it, I said the word “would” instead of “wouldn’’t.” And the sentence should have been — and I thought it would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video — the sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.

What led to this absurd excuse? Let’s round up what the reporting from inside the White House is telling us:

  • The Washington Post: “Inside the White House, aides largely retreated to grim silence after Helsinki. ‘Folks a little freaked out today,’ a Republican operative in frequent touch with the administration wrote in a text message Tuesday. ‘Almost like Zombies about how bad this was.’ “
  • The Daily Beast: “[Trump] stewed and dug in his heels for hours, resenting that he was widely portrayed as ‘weak’ and having been ‘played’ by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he wasn’t getting the kudos he felt he deserved.”
  • Vanity Fair: “Chief of Staff John Kelly was irate. According to a source, he told Trump it would make things worse for him with Robert Mueller. He also exerted pressure to try to get the president to walk back his remarks. According to three sources familiar with the situation, Kelly called around to Republicans on Capitol Hill and gave them the go-ahead to speak out against Trump.”
  • The New York Times: “Now, Mr. Trump’s aides fear the worst is still to come. If the past is any guide, they said privately, Mr. Trump will spend the coming days digesting the continuing fallout from his encounter with Mr. Putin, and he will look for someone other than himself to blame.”

We should also note that even as he was professing to support the universal conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, Trump cast doubt on it:

I have felt very strongly that, while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all. And people have seen that, and they’ve seen that strongly.

“Could be other people also.” He just couldn’t help himself. He also crossed out a line in his prepared statement saying that those involved in meddling should be brought to justice, and scribbled in “THERE WAS NO COLUSION.” Perhaps bringing people to justice for matters having to do with Russia isn’t something he’s too keen on right about now.

So there isn’t any mystery about what Trump really thinks, and his supporters have clearly gotten the message. In a Reuters-Ipsos poll taken after Helsinki, only 1 in 3 Republicans said they believed Russia tried to influence the 2016 election.

Did Trump wake up this morning and take to Twitter to salve the wound to his ego he feels whenever he’s forced to read something he doesn’t believe? You bet he did:

So to review: The Helsinki news conference was a huge success, even though he said the opposite of what he meant on the most important question, which caused his own staff to freak out and led to more criticism from within his own party than for anything since that time he got caught bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, but actually everyone loved it. Got that?

Given what experience has taught us about Trump’s fragile psyche, in the coming days we’ll see Trump lashing out at Mueller and his investigation, as though it’s more obvious than ever that the whole thing is just one giant witch hunt. Because after all, how could anyone possibly believe that Trump or those who worked for him could be guilty of any wrongdoing related to Russia? It’s a crazy idea.