This is a first for the Trump presidency: the first formal presidential retraction of a presidential untruth.
President Trump tweeted a warning to James Comey: The fired FBI director had better hope that no “tapes” existed that could contradict his account of what happened between the two men. Trump has now confessed that he had no basis for this warning. There were no such tapes, and the president knew it all along.
The tweet was intended to intimidate. It failed, spectacularly: Instead of silencing Comey, it set in motion the special counsel investigation that now haunts Donald Trump’s waking imagination.
But the failed intimidation does have important real world consequences.
First, it confirms America’s adversaries in their intensifying suspicion that the president’s tough words are hollow talk. The rulers of North Korea will remember the menacing April 4 statement from the Department of State that the United States had spoken enough about missile tests, implying that decisive actions lay ahead—and the lack of actions and deluge of further statements that actually followed.
The Chinese will remember Trump’s retreat from his “two China” messaging during the transition. They will have noted that Trump has entirely retreated from his insistence that they restrain North Korea or pay some price—seeing instead his “At least I know China tried!” tweet of June 20.
The Russians have buzzed American aircraft and severed the deconfliction hot line over Syria. They have paid no real price for their attack on the integrity of the 2016 election—indeed, the president continues to exonerate them and to argue for relaxed sanctions.
And while the administration continues on a collision course with Iran, even they must wonder whether there is really very much to fear from a president who has alienated the big European countries—notably Germany—who once joined U.S. sanctions but who are now increasing their exports to Iran at a rate of almost 30 percent a year.
“Never bluff.” Each outgoing president should write those words by hand in the letter of advice he leaves atop the Resolute desk for his incoming successor. Trump showed the whole world that when he sweats, he panics. That’s a lesson that will be remembered by the planet’s bad actors for however long this president holds office.