It was as predictable as the sunrise, and it arrived at just about the same moment on Wednesday — a 5:53 a.m. tweet from President Trump undoing his previous day’s forced acknowledgment that he had made a monumental blunder in Helsinki.
On Tuesday, summoning the amount of enthusiasm normally associated with hostage videos, the president read a statement claiming he misspoke during his news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump zeroed in on one narrow comment: his statement that he saw no reason Russia would have interfered with the 2016 election. “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’ ” he said, adding that it was “sort of a double negative.”
That was enough to give freaked-out Republicans on Capitol Hill something to cling to, some hope that Trump had mopped up the disgrace of a U.S. president siding with an adversary over the consensus of his own intelligence agencies.
But by the dawn of the following day, Trump was crowing that his appearance with Putin had been an unalloyed triumph.
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” he tweeted, leaving unclear whether he was referring to top spies or smart people. Either way, it is not true.
By midday, Trump appeared to say at a Cabinet meeting that Russia was no longer targeting the United States — answering “no” twice when asked whether that was the case.
“OMG. OMG. OMG,” former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted as word got out that the president had once again flatly contradicted the assessment of U.S. intelligence and embraced Putin’s version of reality.
One person surely thinking the same thing was Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats — who as recently as Friday declared that “the warning lights are blinking red again” with regard to the Russian cyberthreat.
Beleaguered White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted the president was misunderstood, and that his “no” answer simply meant that he did not want any more questions.
But a retraction of a retraction is entirely within character for a man whose entire presidency has been, to borrow his own phrase, sort of a double negative.
We have been here before. After apologizing for his crude comments about women in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video that surfaced in the weeks before the election, Trump soon after his inauguration reverted to saying in private that the recording had been a fake.
Most egregious was his double-back after last year’s deadly violence in Charlottesville — first suggesting that white supremacists were morally equivalent to the people who were protesting their march there, then two days later condemning “those who spread violence in the name of bigotry,” then a day later reverting again to say there was “blame on both sides.”
Through all of this, the Republican base stands with him, and that means party leaders in Congress and elsewhere must, too. In June, at 500 days into his presidency, his approval within his party stood at 87 percent in the Gallup poll, a near-record among modern presidents, second only to George W. Bush’s 92 percent in the wake of 9/11.
I’m willing to bet that this remains true through this latest controversy, which like so many others may seem like a distant memory within days. Tax cuts and judicial nominations will matter more to Republicans than the fact that Trump has undermined the foreign policy principles that have defined their party for generations.
But the president’s aides have said he was surprised at the shock and dismay generated by his comments in Helsinki — not just from the usual critics on the left and the #NeverTrump right but also from his choir of allies and apologists in Congress and on Fox News.
Particularly startling to him was a blistering tweet by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who wrote that it was “the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
Gingrich told me that he and the president spoke afterward and that Trump “knows that he sent a signal he didn’t mean to send” in Helsinki.
Trump’s reluctance to accept his own intelligence agencies’ consensus view of Russia’s actions is rooted, at least in part, in his sense of grievance. He cannot see anything but a challenge to the legitimacy of his own election as president, and a refusal by his adversaries to acknowledge his achievement in beating 16 other Republicans to win the nomination, and then former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the electoral college.
“He has an internally programmed response,” Gingrich said. “I’m not defending it, but that’s what it is.”
What Trump says may not be the truth — except for what it tells you about Trump himself.