In the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s despicable performance in Helsinki, I can’t help but feel sorry for everyone whose job it was to prepare the president not to embarrass himself. I’m sure they tried their best. I’m sure that no one in those positions intended for him to endorse Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia did nothing to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.
I know of no new convincing evidence that might help us understand why Trump did this. Bribery? Extortion? Stupidity? Ego, based on an unwillingness to accept or acknowledge needing such help to steal the election? Something else? I wonder if we’ll ever find out. Maybe even Trump doesn’t know.
But Tuesday’s development — in which Trump claimed to have misspoken by one syllable and accidentally said the opposite of what he meant to say, and that it took him a day to figure it out — is, even by the debased standards of the lies that he regularly asks his followers to believe, a bridge too far.
It is in fact insulting. And I pity anyone who finds this one-syllable two-letter correction a convincing explanation of Trump’s real intent.
In case you have any doubt, let’s just put up the transcript. Notice, it begins with a very specific question about whether or not Trump believes the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded with high confidence that Russian operatives engaged in interference with the 2016 election.
Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire: “Just now president Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe? My second question is would you now with the whole world watching tell president Putin — would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?”
The answer would be hilarious if it came from Groucho Marx in “Duck Soup.” But it came from the current incumbent in the Oval Office. Please read it and try to remember the original question. (Note: nothing in that question mentions Hillary Clinton’s computer server.)
Trump: “So let me just say we have two thoughts. We have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server, and what is the server saying?
With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [director of national intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others, 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, but I really do want to see the server, but I have—I have confidence in both parties.
I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC. Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.
So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did, is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. Okay? Thank you.”
The unresponsiveness is incredible. First there’s a predictable change of topic to the Clinton server, and only then an acknowledgement that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered. But there’s absolutely no endorsement of that community’s consensus view (which is backed up by facts in an actual indictment issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller).
Instead, Trump’s answer features praise for the strength and power of Putin’s denial. Mr. Trump worships strength and power, so I take it as a pretty strong endorsement that he leans toward believing Putin or at least that he leaves open the possibility that Putin is telling the truth and that the U.S. intelligence community is mistaken or biased.
Incredible. He doesn’t say whom he believes, but he seems to be leaning toward Putin. So all hell breaks loose, and Republicans who have never criticized him before do so, demanding that he retract his remarks, apologize, and endorse the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community.
Instead, on Tuesday, Trump issues a ridiculous, unconvincing and unresponsive clarification that’s supposed to take care of the problem. I’ve included the full text below, plus a link to a video, but let me summarize it first.
Trump says that he couldn’t understand the fuss about the statement, quoted in full above, so he reviewed the tape and discovered that that he had misspoken one word by one syllable, that he had said “would” when he meant “wouldn’t,” and that this had given the erroneous impression that he didn’t have full confidence in the findings of his intelligence community.
I’ll candidly admit that I don’t believe any slip of the tongue was involved. But how can I know? Nonetheless, even if you change the one “would” to “wouldn’t” it has almost no impact on the overall impression that Trump doesn’t know whether Putin or the intelligence community is telling the truth.
Here’s Trump’s unconvincing clarification/takeback, which begins with him expressing astonishment that his statement at Helsinki was causing such a ruckus and that he couldn’t understand how anyone thought he was doubting the intelligence community:
“I came back and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?’ So I went out there and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave. And I realize there’s a need for some clarification.
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 ‘it wouldn’t be Russia.’
So, just to repeat it, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been — and I thought I would maybe be 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. So, you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Personally, I don’t believe a Trumpian slip of the tongue was involved. But even if you allow him to edit his remarks to fix the “slip,” Trump’s statement still says that the intelligence community believes the evidence shows Putin interfered, while Putin says he didn’t; it still says Trump has “confidence in both parties” (one of whom is Putin), still emphasizes the strength and clarity of Putin’s denial, and still expresses no doubt about Putin’s denial. At no point does Trump say he didn’t believe Putin, nor does he say that he does believe the U.S. intelligence community. And of course, more than half of Trump’s answer is concerned with Clinton computer server, which is irrelevant to the original question.
Here’s the paragraph is question, in which he said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia” but wishes he had said “wouldn’t be Russia:”
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [director of national intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others, 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 [but he meant to say wouldn’t] be, but I really do want to see the server, but I have—I have confidence in both parties.”
There’s video of Trump’s “clarification” in this Washington Post clip.