The Memo: Summit fallout hits White House

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE has endured one of the worst weeks of his tenure since Monday’s disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and he is not out of the woods yet.

The initial storm over the news conference was prolonged by a series of missteps and fresh controversies for the administration. 

Trump’s subsequent invite to Putin to visit Washington in the fall was met with consternation even by many Republicans. Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Defense: Pentagon lists construction projects at risk from emergency declaration | Officials deny report on leaving 1,000 troops in Syria | Spy budget request nears B Trump administration requests nearly B for spy budget Dems request probe into spa owner suspected of trying to sell access to Trump MORE was apparently taken by surprise when the news of the invite was given to him at a live event in Aspen, Colo., by Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. 


The White House also took almost 24 hours to clear up confusion as to whether it would be willing to make American citizens available for questioning by Russian authorities — the kind of request that had previously been considered out of bounds by members of both parties.

Then there was another mini-drama over whether Trump had meant, in comments to the media as they were being ushered out of the White House Cabinet room, that he did not believe Russia was still targeting the United States.

The entire saga has left Republicans reeling and dismayed.

“Frankly, it has been two really terrible weeks,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, referring not just to the Helsinki summit with Putin but also to the president’s travels elsewhere in Europe that came before.

“Helsinki was such a disaster that we have lost sight of the disasters that came before that in Brussels and London,” Heye said. “Then, from a PR perspective, obviously the back and forth they’ve had this week has also been a disaster — and not how crisis communications is handled, to put it mildly.”

Even those Republicans who did not take quite so apocalyptic a view of the events of the week are desperate for the controversy to end.

“They’ve got to get off Russia,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Do I think July 16 will be the day that determines who wins the House? I don’t. But [Russia] crowds out a stellar Supreme Court pick and the strong economy and anything else they are trying to push.”

Barring a real cataclysm, the Putin furor seems certain to extend at least through the weekend. There is also the possibility of further drama. Figures outside the administration — including former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanEx-CIA director blasts Trump over 'temper tantrums' Ex-CIA director: 'I don't have any doubt' Trump will pardon Manafort Senate Dems request probe of White House security clearances MORE — have called on people serving in Trump’s national security team to resign in protest. Meanwhile, Trump aides are reportedly furious at Coats’s public remarks.

Some Republican lawmakers were forthright in their criticism of Trump in the immediate wake of the Putin press conference. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral Trump's approval rating stable at 45 percent GOP senator: Trump's criticism of McCain 'deplorable' MORE (R-Ariz.) called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in recent memory.”

But GOP condemnation seemed to taper off as Trump sought to walk-back some of his most controversial comments. He insisted that he had “full faith” in U.S. intelligence agencies during one appearance at the White House, while he indicated during an interview with CBS News that he held Putin personally responsible for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Republican lawmakers are also reacting to polls that have shown the president with approval ratings of around 90 percent among GOP voters. Amid this week’s firestorm, a CBS News poll found that 68 percent of Republican voters approved of his handling of the summit with Putin.

Democrats and other Trump critics acknowledge his strength with his base. But they also note that the opinion of his hardcore supporters is not the be-all and end-all. Republican candidates in November’s midterm elections — as well as the president himself in 2020 — will need to have some capacity to win the support of less committed Republican-leaning voters and independents.

It is in this regard that the Putin debacle may be so damaging, they say.

“I have believed for a long time that the 40 percent or so that are with him are probably not going to ever budge, on anything,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who worked on Sen. Doug Jones’s (D-Ala.) shock victory earlier this year. “But the problem is that [the Russia controversy] just completely locked out the other 60 percent. I don’t think he’ll get them.”

Trippi argued that the atmosphere of chaos and confusion that has enveloped the White House this week is at least as damaging — if not more so — than any specifics of the administration’s Russia policy.

“It’s like Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” Trippi said, adding that many people, including the share of Republican voters who did not approve of the president’s conduct in Helsinki, “want to get off.”

Even figures who are normally supportive of the president acknowledge that a corner needs to be turned soon.

“I think the administration has weathered the storm, but they need to get back on track with affirmative policies like tax reform,” said Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House. 

“They need to get away from foreign policy for a while and trade more on domestic policies.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, focused primarily on Donald Trump’s presidency.