Political News

Trump Tries a Familiar Tactic: Providing a New Story Line

Posted July 19, 2018 11:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2018 12:02 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump spent much of Thursday playing up his economic accomplishments and attacking his regular list of rivals, including Hillary Clinton and the news media, which he again called the enemy of the people.

As he tried to leave in his wake Monday’s news conference with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, analysts and critics spent the day wondering whether the misstep would create a lasting problem for him.

As they ruminated, supporters who had publicly called out the president this week for standing beside Putin in Helsinki and saying he did not believe Russians meddled in the 2016 election, seemed to be pivoting. By conceding that he had misspoken on the issue, they hoped, the president had wriggled his way out of yet another one.

“He is fine,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who broke rank Monday and called Trump’s comments at the news conference “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”

But intentionally or not, Trump was set on testing the limits of his ability to move on without consequences.

He took the extraordinary and risky move of inviting Putin to Washington. Discussions for a meeting in the fall were already underway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Twitter.

Trump was deploying a familiar tactic: barreling into the next news cycle by supplying the next bit of incendiary programming.

Gingrich dismissed the ire over Trump’s news conference this week with Putin — “For most Americans news conferences in Helsinki are transitory and fleeting,” he wrote in an email. But he did not answer a follow-up message asking him what he thought of Trump’s invitation to Putin.

The decision adds to a growing mass of questions surrounding Trump’s ever-vacillating stance on Russia, leading lawmakers, analysts and supporters to question whether the president, a master of diversion, could be testing his own well-honed instinct to reset the news cycle and move on from consequences.

“Part of Trump’s ability to dodge bullets in the past has rested on his ability to change the subject,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist and pollster. “And this time he’s changing his story instead of changing the subject. And we’re now several days into a very negative narrative on Trump’s conduct in his dealings with Putin.”

If aware of the risks he was taking, Trump, an obsessive over ratings and approval numbers, seemed unconcerned. Though a majority of Americans disapprove of how he handled himself in Helsinki, 68 percent of Republicans are sticking by him, according to a CBS poll released Thursday. And a poll conducted by the news site Axios and SurveyMonkey showed that 79 percent of Republicans approved of the meeting.

Trump has generally met criticism over his behavior with the pugilistic response he has sharpened over his 72 years, first as the child of a wealthy real estate developer, a tabloid fixture, a reality TV star and now from his seat in the Oval Office. It has never stopped him — not for long, anyway.

“I think his willingness to double down in the wake of these events that everyone else sees as catastrophic is because he authentically doesn’t care,” Timothy O’Brien, the author of the 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” said in an interview. “He’s been insulated his whole life from the impact of his own mistakes.”

But Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, noted that Trump’s base of support had endured through Charlottesville and the border separation crisis. “Politics has become so polarized that there is a powerful tendency to rally around our guy,” Ayres said, “and to defend our guy in the face of criticism from people we don’t like.”

But Garin, the Democratic strategist, said that by continuing to show a conciliatory side to Putin, the president was “making it harder and harder for Republicans to defend him with any real conviction.

“And that may signal to voters that there’s something different about this one,” he added.

With his invitation to Putin, the president again appeared in tune with the Russian president, who, in a foreign policy speech to Russian ambassadors, appeared to be channeling the views of his American counterpart.

“We see that there are forces in the United States that can easily sacrifice Russian-U.S. relations for the sake of their own ambitions,” Putin said. “Let’s see how the events develop, especially considering that certain forces are trying to disavow the results of the meeting in Helsinki.”

The shared desire of the two leaders for a closer relationship will almost certainly continue to create obstacles for Trump’s defenders in Congress, who largely expect a harsher stance from the Trump administration — if not the president himself — on Russia.

After Helsinki, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., was among those who pointed out that the president had made a misstep. In an interview Thursday, Cole noted the difference between Trump’s words and his administration’s policies, and suggested there would only be sweeping concern if those policies changed.

“I separate administration policy, which has actually been pretty tough on the Russians, and presidential sentiment,” Cole said. “I think the policy is going to stay tough.”