Trump’s performance in Helsinki may be the one scandal of his administration that isn’t simply swallowed whole by the next one. Phil Quin looks at what could be next.
A US President stands next to his Russian counterpart and repeats the Kremlin’s denial it interfered in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, he waved off the unanimous conclusion of 17 American security and intelligence services , delivered “with a high degree of certainty”, that the Russians did exactly that, and that Putin himself ordered the active measures.
Trump tried today, thousands of miles from Putin’s glare, to walk back his statement by claiming he neglected to add the word “not” when he said he had no reason to believe Russia was the culprit. Easily the most self abasing and futile adventure in presidential spin since Bill Clinton rested his impeachment defense on the definition of the word “is”. As such, the White House backdown is getting worse reviews than the presser itself.
It’s hard to keep track of Trump scandals, let alone rank them, but when the immediate past director of the CIA, John Brennan, calls the President’s Helsinki outburst “treasonous”, perhaps this isn’t your garden variety outrage.
Before Trump installed his patented norm shredder in the Oval Office, former spooks like Brennan were largely seen and not heard. There is no better evidence that these are deeply abnormal times in US politics and government that Brennan, one of four officials to initially brief Trump on Russia’s interference, feels sufficiently fearful for US security to tweet that President Putin is Trump’s “master puppeteer”.
But Brennan is easily dismissed by some as an embittered old Obama hand; not so in the case of Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who directly contradicted Trump, confirming not only that Russian interference occurred at Putin’s direction in 2016, but that it is ongoing.
Before yesterday, the Trump Russia scandal couldn’t book a gig outside the Beltway to save itself.
Even harder to ignore is John McCain, who took a break from battling terminal brain cancer to point out how he had never witnessed, in a long and storied career, a US president “abase himself before a tyrant”. Fox News said Trump was “unpatriotic”, and the right wing Drudge Report said POTUS was “dominated” by Putin. There is talk among some Republican luminaries of staging an intervention, an idea as revealing as it is terrible – his loathing of these country clubbers is why Trump became president (those smug bastards, with their properly tailored suits, non-ridiculous hair, who see Donny as low-brow, vulgar, showy, dumb. This is prep school payback on a momentous scale).
Everything else has come and gone. Those wailing kids at the border. The Muslim ban. Attacks on a reporter with a disability, a Gold Star family, woman after woman with credible assault claims. News is so frenetic, and Trump is such a prolific generator – and subject of it – that if the strategy is exhaustion, it’s working. Despite dozens of indictments and growing evidence of wrongdoing, public support for the Mueller probe is dropping quite precipitously, now hovering around 50 percent. Sure, most of that is just thoughtless tribal loyalty, but Trumpists comprise way less than half the population. There are Democrats and Independents, too, who want this Russia thing to go away. Not because they’ve been persuaded it’s a “witchhunt”, as Trump has claimed more than 80 times on Twitter alone, but because they really don’t care that much.
Most people don’t really follow politics closely. An Aussie pollster told me in January that, as a result of media disaggregation, most voters absorb less substantive news about politics than in the pre-digital era. To them, politics is about as important to them as English Premiership football is to people who don’t hate – and yet don’t really follow – the sport. We have a preferred team, maybe, and a player or two we love –or, even better, love to hate. And we treat politics more and more like the Poms treat soccer, too — the mindless chanting, the giddy abuse – rendering politics useless when it comes to solving real problems.
Trump knows he cannot win a high turnout election. He needs his opponents to stay home, and his supporters to turn out like their lives depend on it.
As a news story, Helsinki has another 24 hours’ life. But there are two possible outcomes that could indeed make today’s development far more consequential than that. Beginning with a long shot, Republicans in Congress may work out that their job description doesn’t actually prohibit acting from principle. This won’t happen because the only thing less popular than Donald Trump is the GOP Congress. Cross Trump and your career is toast as a Republican.
The second, and marginally more likely, way Helsinki affects the Trump Presidency is that the pushback, combined with the ugly optics of a cowering Trump, finally gets the public focused on the Russia scandal, just as it took the Nixon tapes to awaken voter interest in Watergate, long after the break-in and months after the investigation commenced.
Before yesterday, the Trump Russia scandal couldn’t book a gig outside the Beltway to save itself. It has failed to capture the public’s imagination, and any further decline in public support for the inquiry will give Trump every excuse to scuttle Mueller and exonerate himself. If Trump’s historically awful performance in Helsinki yesterday helps reverse any of that, it may be the one scandal of his administration that isn’t simply swallowed whole by the next one.