The Corner

White House

The President’s Do-Over

President Trump discusses the Helsinki summit before a meeting with members of Congress at the White house, July 17, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In response to Strong Would

I agree with Jonah on all counts: On net, President Trump’s do-over of his Helsinki remarks is a good thing; regrettably, it is not sincere; and while I hope the revised version is the one he sticks to, I don’t have confidence that will be the case — as posited in my column Tuesday on the folly of having the summit in the first place, Trump seems constitutionally incapable of distinguishing what ought to be his undeniable legitimacy as president from the fact (it is a fact) of Russia’s influence operation during the campaign.

Jonah points to Trump’s body language and ad-lib during Tuesday’s walk back. On the honesty meter, I was most dissuaded by the context of “would” in the president’s original remarks. He was making a case for why one should harbor doubts about the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia meddled. His use of “would” (“I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia”) made perfect sense; his revisionist “wouldn’t” is discordant.

This matters because it guarantees that the story will linger longer.

Let’s say the president had come out and simply said, “I made a mistake. I should have been clear that I accept the conclusion that Russia interfered in the election. The important thing now is to make sure they know there will be a heavy price to pay if they try it again.” It would have been bad — he’d have felt humiliated while his critics crowed. But it would have been right, it would have been over faster, and it would have impressed at least some critics that Trump was playing against type. It would have inspired confidence that his advisers had gotten through to him about the seriousness of the Helsinki lapses.

Now, instead, we will have elongated coverage of why the president’s new version — I had it right all along, I just tripped on a word — is not credible. (In another era, I would have said “we will have days of coverage,” but the news cycles are much shorter these days, and the president is good at quickly superseding the last story with the next story.)

One depressing thing I will never understand: Why Trump is unable to see that conceding an obvious fact — viz., that Putin’s effort was meant to ramp up support for Trump and opposition to Clinton — would neither undermine Trump’s legitimacy as president nor concede that Putin wanted Trump to win.

Forget about what ardent Trump antagonists would say on this score; it is not worth trying to talk them out of their grievances. As a practical matter, Russia’s influence operation was a drop in an ocean of electioneering. It made no more difference than the international Left’s unconcealed enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton. Trump won mainly because he wasn’t Hillary and partly because he struck chords that played well with salient parts of the electorate. The Russian hacking made no difference. To repeat an argument I made during the campaign, nine out of ten people (at least) in America have no idea who John Podesta is; to buy the Democratic theory, you’d have to believe that the emails of virtually unknown Democratic operatives were critical to voters, but Mrs. Clinton’s own thousands of classified and unaccounted-for emails were of no moment. That’s silly.

Just as important, Putin is a sophisticated, cunning man. He surely does not delude himself into believing he can actually determine the outcome of an American election. If you look at how Putin meddles in Western elections, his pattern is to back losing factions and stoke friction. His goal is to foment discord. He may say he wanted Trump to win — after all, he knows that saying so causes still more controversy. But he didn’t support Trump because he wanted Trump to win; he supported Trump because he was sure Trump would lose.

The idea was to make life as difficult as possible for the fledgling Hillary Clinton presidency. Like other expert observers, Putin did not believe Trump was going to win. His influence operation to divide American society has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams because he has gotten media and Democratic-party help that would never have materialized if Clinton had won, as everyone was so certain she would.

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