Update: And now Trump, apparently unbowed, wants to invite Putin to Washington.
For the third time this week, President Trump has been forced to walk back something he said about Russia. First it was comparing his own intelligence community's credibility to Vladimir Putin's. Then it was his statement that Russia wasn't still interfering in U.S. elections. And now it's his apparent plan to allow Russia to interview Americans it accuses of crimes, including a former ambassador.
It was all one giant, self-inflicted wound. And it all did precisely what Putin hopes and what Trump seems to fear most: made Trump look weak and ineffectual.
The White House finally shot down that last idea Thursday afternoon — three days after Trump called it an “incredible offer” and nearly a full day after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders inflamed congressional allies and even the State Department by suggesting it could actually come to fruition.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders said in a statement. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
But even in backing down again, the White House seemed to take pains not to irritate Putin, and made it clear it's not about to do anything close to getting tough.
The idea that the proposal was made “in sincerity” is laughable to pretty much anybody who understands Russia and the former KGB operative who leads it. It's clear this was a trap sprung by Putin in their private, two-hour meeting. Trump is a guy who likes cutting deals and to walk away from a meeting with a deliverable. So a deal like this, to a diplomatic neophyte like him, probably seemed pretty sensible. You talk to our guys, and we'll talk to yours. Why not, right?
But it was ridiculous from the start. And lawmakers weren't about to let it happen, even drafting legislation to express disapproval. Trump was forced to back down on an idea that he, according to his own comments, thought was fantastic. It was total amateur hour.
The second part of Sanders's statement doesn't get any stronger. She expressed hope that Putin would extradite the 12 Russian military intelligence officers Robert S. Mueller III indicted last week, rather than saying that they must be sent to the United States to stand trial. It seems a clear signal there will be no demand made and no leverage applied to actually make that happen. Much like Trump won't press Putin to admit to the 2016 election interference, the White House seems to suggest it won't do anything besides ask nicely.
By the end of the week, even some Republicans were musing publicly about whether Putin might have something on Trump. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas, wrote a New York Times op-ed saying Putin is "manipulating" Trump.
For journalists and political watchers, it's tempting to look for the strategy in all of this. Maybe Trump is distracting us! Maybe he's paving the way for something we can't see! Maybe he's just trolling us for fun!
But to the outside world, it all has to look like Trump went over his skis repeatedly, only to be reined in by Congress and by the news media. Especially in this last case, it can't help but look like he has no idea what he's doing — and that he was completely out of his element when negotiating with someone like Putin.
If that's the image Trump is trying to project on the world stage, mission accomplished.