President Donald Trump had one clear mission when he spoke to the press Tuesday afternoon before meeting with a handful of congressional Republicans: Clean up the damage he did on Monday when he broke with the intelligence community by suggesting that Russia might not have been behind the 2016 election interference and arguing that there was blame on both sides of the matter.
"I have a full faith and support for America's great intelligence agencies," Trump said, reading slowly from a page of written remarks -- a major break from his usual freewheeling style in these sorts of situations. Then, Trump added this: "I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place -- could be other people also."
Focus on the five words at the end there: "Could be other people also."
Those five words not only totally undermine what Trump was trying to do with his post-Helsinki summit comments but also run afoul of the intelligence community's 2017 report on Russian interference in the election. That report, which carried the unanimous endorsement of the entire US intelligence community, said that Russia interfered in the election with the express goal of helping Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton. Nowhere else in the IC report is there a mention of another country being even possibly responsible for the broad and deep election-meddling effort focused on the 2016 campaign.
What those five words reveal is that Trump is still not at all convinced that Russia was the one who interfered in the 2016 election -- or, at a minimum, that Russia acted alone. Which means that in purposely trying to fix the mess he made by suggesting he didn't totally believe his own intelligence community, Trump made the point that he doesn't totally believe his own intelligence community.
Context matters here too. This is far from the first time that Trump has, usually under considerable political pressure, acknowledged Russia probably sought to interfere in the 2016 election only to go back on that claim in subsequent weeks or months. Here's a brief walk-through of Trump's past admissions about Russia's involvement thanks to CNN's indispensable Marshall Cohen:
- "As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people." (January 2017)
- "I've said it very, I've said it very simply. I think it could well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. I won't be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere." (June 2017)
- "What I said there, I'm surprised that there's any conflict on this. What I said there is that I believe [Putin] believes that, and that's very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies. I've worked with them very strongly." (November 2017)
- "Certainly there was meddling. Probably there was meddling from other countries." (March 2018)
And all of those statements are consistent with what Trump said on the campaign trail during the 2016 race -- including most famously/infamously this line during a debate with Clinton: "I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke in to DNC."
So when Trump said on Tuesday that "I have on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our election," he's not totally wrong. He has done that. Then, in the next sentence or the next day or the next week or the next month, he sought to systematically raise questions about the idea that Russia did, in fact, pursue a strategy to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The conclusion here is as obvious as the nose on your face: Donald Trump has never -- and does not now -- 100% believe that Russia ran an active campaign to meddle in the 2016 election. He will parrot the talking point when he absolutely has to -- like on Tuesday -- but, even then, he feels compelled to add those words ("could be other people also") that reveal his true feelings.
Maya Angelou had it right when she said: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
Trump cannot hold these two competing ideas in his head: 1) That Russia sought to interfere in the election to help him and hurt Clinton and 2) He is still the President whether or not he chooses to acknowledge that first idea. To Trump, admitting Russia led a massive campaign to influence the 2016 election means that he is admitting that he didn't win fair and square or that the results are tainted. He can't see his way around that. He's willing to put aside the unanimous conclusions of his intelligence community (not to mention the Senate Intelligence Committee) and willing to believe the "very strong" assertions by the former KGB agent now running Russia instead.
The consequences of Trump's blindness on this issue are not isolated to his own political standing. They are far-reaching -- as we saw in Finland on Monday. Putin (and Russia) walked away with a massive victory on the geopolitical stage solely because the President of the United States can't understand that regardless of what Russia did in the 2016 election, he's still the President.
Remarkable. And scary.