The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco

The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE is trying to get out from underneath the wreckage of his news conference with Vladimir Putin, with limited success.

The encounter with Putin in Helsinki on Monday differs from previous Trump furors: The president caused serious tremors even among stalwart supporters with his sympathetic tone toward the Russian president and his apparent skepticism about U.S. intelligence agency findings.

“Embarrassing” and “ugly” were the descriptions offered of Trump’s performance by separate sources within his orbit who spoke to The Hill.


A third Trump-friendly source acknowledged that backers of the president had been left “gravely concerned” by what occurred at the news conference.

Trump tried to stop the bleeding on Tuesday, with a statement to the press in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, during which the notoriously loathe-to-retreat president sounded a note of contrition.

He claimed that he “realized that there is need for some clarification” after reading a transcript of the news conference.

In particular, Trump claimed that he had mangled “sort of a double negative.” 

He asserted he had intended to say that he saw no reason why the source of the meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election “wouldn’t be Russia.” 

In Helsinki, he had said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

The explanation rang a strange note for many observers, given the overall tenor of Trump’s remarks in Helsinki. He had said, for example, that Putin had given a “strong and powerful” denial of Russian meddling, and had appeared to place much of the blame for U.S.-Russia tensions on the probe spearheaded by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

At the White House on Tuesday, Trump was adamant that he had “full faith in our intelligence agencies.” But he undercut his scripted assertion that he accepted Russia was responsible for election interference with an ad-lib: “Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there.”

Conservatives who have been critical of Trump were unimpressed.

“I think it’s absurd to think that he can fix what happened yesterday,” said commentator and talk show host Charlie Sykes on Tuesday. “You can’t unring a bell. He was given multiple opportunities to push back on Vladimir Putin [at the news conference] and he refused each and every one of them.”

But the epicenter of the danger for Trump lies in the capacity of the Putin controversy to damage him with loyalists.

Media outlets usually sympathetic to the president were forceful in their criticism after Monday’s misstep. 

Fox Business Network anchor Neil Cavuto called Trump's performance "disgusting"; his colleague Trish Regan asserted during an appearance on Fox News Channel's "Outnumbered" that it had been lacking in patriotism. The Drudge Report website said that Putin “dominates” the encounter.

Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the former Speaker and a strong Trump supporter, called the Putin news conference “the most serious mistake of [Trump's] presidency” on Twitter. 

On Tuesday, after Trump tried to clean up the mess, Gingrich praised him for having “responded quickly and clearly once he realized he had used wrong language.”

One GOP aide with ties to the White House called Gingrich’s initial criticism of Trump “the canary in the coal mine” for the president. 

But, this source added, “it was a good idea to try and walk back his self-imposed disaster.”

A former aide to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign told The Hill: 

“Political detractors, political opponents, aren’t going to start liking the president again. But the most important thing here is to communicate with fellow Republicans and allies around the world to let them know that the administration is on the same page when it comes to Russia.”

Many Republican lawmakers seemed eager to move past the controversy. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE (R-Fla) said he was “just glad he clarified” what he meant. “I take him at his word if he says he misspoke, absolutely,” Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller GOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ On The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' MORE (R-Ohio) told Fox News.

Democrats, meanwhile, reacted with derision to Trump’s attempted cleanup on Tuesday

“Just caught up with @POTUS hostage video. Couldn’t tell because the lights went out but I think he may have been blinking ‘I don’t mean it’ in Morse Code,” tweeted David Axelrod, the CNN commentator and former chief strategist for President Obama.

Trump supporters were left hoping that Tuesday’s remarks — and the passage of time — would help turn the page.

GOP strategist Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House, admitted that Helsinki was “not the president’s finest hour.” But he argued the damage could be largely neutralized unless Trump took actions that seemed to be too soft with Russia.

“His next actions are going to be scrutinized,” Blakeman said.

Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to the Trump 2016 campaign, insisted, “I don’t think he’s going to suffer any damage.”

But others were not so sure, seeing a particular danger in a president whose image is so wrapped up in patriotism and strength having seemed timorous around a foreign adversary.

“It really diminished the Trump brand because he came off as so servile and so weak,” said Sykes. “This is someone who has posed as a figure of strength who would never apologize for America, and in Helsinki he was both weak and groveling. You wonder how that plays with at least some elements of his base.”

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