Assume that Donald Trump is totally innocent of any wrongdoing with regard to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and that those insisting otherwise are treating the president unfairly.
Then reread the latest New York Times scoop:
WASHINGTON — President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”
Trump may well be innocent of collusion with Russia during the campaign. And let’s say (though it’s getting harder to believe) that he is innocent of obstructing the investigation.
If all that were true—if we make all the most charitable assumptions about Trump’s actions—his words here should still suffice to give the public great pause about his fitness. For Trump didn’t just speak about firing James Comey in a way that could hardly do more to reinforce the widespread suspicions that swirled around the White House, creating an appearance of impropriety at a time when the nation can ill afford it.
He spoke that way to Russian operatives!
“The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives,” the Times wrote. And that’s right. That it leaked clearly hurts the White House.
If I see that it hurts them, and you see it, and The New York Times saw it? Then so did the Russians. The highest-ranking Russian diplomats in the United States are not idiots. They are savvy. And while it appears they weren’t the ones who leaked the story, that means Trump gave the Russians information they could have used to weaken him.
And he did so without even realizing it.
That is unnerving, because it suggests that even if Trump is innocent of Russia ties and obstruction of justice—and he may be!—he cannot hold his own in a low-pressure meeting, on his own turf. He wasn’t even pressured in a clever bid to extract information; Trump’s words here were self-sabotage, a totally unforced error.
For years he called himself a world-class negotiator. Supporters like Scott Adams call him a master persuader. Now he is president, and he is failing at the highest level.
Here is how an apparently sympathetic official described what he was attempting in that meeting:
A third government official briefed on the meeting defended the president, saying Mr. Trump was using a negotiating tactic when he told Mr. Lavrov about the “pressure” he was under. The idea, the official suggested, was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of Mr. Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Mr. Trump.
Trump was using a dumb negotiating tactic. It involved giving the Russians information that would damage the White House if it leaked. And beside that cost, the supposed benefit was the leverage that comes from telling the Russians they made Trump’s life difficult, which could’ve been accomplished by speaking about post-election rumors and needn’t have involved any mention of Comey or his firing at all.
I’d call that a very poor negotiation with Russia, except that in the same meeting, Trump reportedly gave them classified information that compromised a sensitive intelligence operation, so let’s call it a shamefully incompetent negotiation with Russia.
Trump is terrible at being president.