President Trump knew it was bad when he lost Fox & Friends. The morning after he fluffed up Vladimir Putin while teeing off on the U.S. intelligence community during a press conference in Helsinki, the president was roundly criticized by his favorite morning news program. At one point, host Brian Kilmeade looked into the camera and appealed to the president directly. “When Newt Gingrich, when General Jack Keane, when Matt Schlapp said the president fell short and made our intelligence apparatus look bad, I think it’s time to pay attention,” he said. “I think it’s easily correctible from the president’s perspective.”
In reality, the president’s performance during Monday’s press conference isn’t easily correctible. Trump is deep within the pocket of a manipulative, authoritarian leader determined to drive a wedge between the United States and its closest allies, at the same time compromising America’s democratic process with little recourse. But reality is immaterial when it comes to Trump’s Executive-Time synergy with Kilmeade. Republican talking heads like Newt Gingrich don’t pay it much mind, either. Like Kilmeade, the former Speaker of the House called on Trump to “immediately” correct what he called the “most serious mistake of his presidency.”
President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—-immediately.
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) July 16, 2018
Trump certainly heard Kilmeade’s appeal, and, according to the Washington Post, he was also “particularly rattled” by the criticism from Gingrich, one of his most loyal supporters. So the president got together with his advisers and devised a fix. A few hours later, he called reporters to the White House, where he read a prepared statement claiming he misspoke on Monday when he said he couldn’t see a reason why Russia would want to interfere in the election – a ludicrous reversal considering he spent the rest of the 45-minute press conference praising Putin and bashing U.S. intelligence.
Not only did the walk-back feel pathetically transparent and disingenuous, it was reported as such. A senior White House official told the Daily Beast on Tuesday that Trump “was more truthful yesterday than today and is capitulating to an angry caucus.” A few hours later, Tucker Carlson argued similarly in the lead-in to his show, which included a post-summit interview with Trump. “The president bowed to the inevitable, genuflecting before U.S. intelligence agencies whose judgment must never be questioned and recited the now obligatory loyalty to the spy bureaucrats now in charge of our country,” he said, going on to describe the walk-back a “hostage tape.”
“Nice try,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted after Trump read his statement. “But seriously, no one believes you.”
Pelosi was wrong.
Gingrich quickly fell back in line. “President Trump did right thing today in clarifying his comments in helsinki-reiterating his respect for and support of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the intelligence community,” he tweeted. “President responded quickly and clearly once he realized he had used wrong language.”
So, too, did Marco Rubio, whose missing spine the authorities have long since called off the search for.
Trump’s would/wouldn’t cleanup attempt good enough for Marco Rubio: "I’m just glad he clarified it. I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. suffice it to say that for me as a policy maker, what really matters is what we do moving forward."
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) July 17, 2018
With the walk-back’s purpose served, Trump was free on Wednesday morning to reaffirm his pro-Putin stance, as well as his belief that the press conference was actually a huge success. Screw the haters.
So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2018
Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2018
On Wednesday morning, a relieved Fox & Friends crew praised Trump for “doubling down” on his support for U.S. intelligence, which both Trump and Fox & Friends have spent the better part of the president’s term attempting to undermine on a daily basis. “The president says he doesn’t see any reason why Russia would be behind election meddling, and everyone went, ‘What? They are behind the meddling! We have proof of that! Our own intelligence is saying that!’ That’s why the president made that clarification saying he didn’t mean that,” Ainsley Earhardt explained with a tone most people use only when speaking to toddlers or dogs. “That’s why it was so puzzling why he would say Russia isn’t behind the meddling, because he has said there is meddling in the election and that it was Russia,” added Steve Doocy.
President Trump doubles down on his support for intelligence agencies and clarifies his comments from Monday’s press conference with Putin pic.twitter.com/CdN4n6Hm1Q
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) July 18, 2018
In reality, Trump has suggested several times over the course of his presidency that he does not believe Russia meddled in the election. As recently as a few weeks ago, he tweeted about Russia’s denial as if it were proof the attack didn’t happen. He said the same thing during the press conference on Monday: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” During his “clarification” on Tuesday, Trump left the door open to the interference having been conducted not by Russia, but by “other people” who are “out there.” Such a suggestion is a direct rebuke of U.S. intelligence, which has concluded definitively that Russia interfered in the election. Despite what Fox & Friends says, Trump did not agree with this assessment on Tuesday, and he likely never will, either because he is scared of Putin, because he clearly wants Russia to help Republicans in 2018 and 2020 or both.
It’s unclear if the Fox & Friends couchmates – and for that matter, Gingrich, Rubio and the other Republicans who took the president’s statement seriously – are knowingly lying, or if they have been so thoroughly subsumed by Trump’s delusions that they actually believe what they’re saying to be true, a la the president himself. It doesn’t matter, because millions of Americans are watching Fox News and assuming the hosts are acting in good faith, and thus, to a not-insignificant portion of the country, Trump has indeed absolved himself. To further nudge viewers past the controversy surrounding Monday’s press conference, the network brought on a few talking heads to assure the unconvinced that anyone criticizing Trump’s performance in Helsinki is un-American, and that the president is actually being really tough on Russia. On Wednesday morning, the network was also predictably packed with guests praising Trump’s tax cuts, jobs and border security, apropos of nothing other than a frantic need to reestablish its loyalty to the president. Conspiring with Putin on a global stage was old news.
Update: When asked during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon if he believes Russia is still targeting the United States, Trump shook his head and said no.
Is Russia still targeting the US? Trump says, "No." pic.twitter.com/L5ZY9DE4r1
— Meg Wagner (@megwagner) July 18, 2018
On Friday, after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made clear that Russia is indeed still targeting the United States. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
This post has been updated.