Yet these meltdowns keep happening. One and a half years into his presidency, Trump has learned nothing. For the past few months, it seemed like the administration, while not stable by any objective measure, had managed to find something close to a rhythm. The past week shows that that was an illusion. Whatever comfort Trump has found in the job, he still seems to have no grasp on how to conduct himself or govern the nation. The evidence for that assessment is that the essential ingredients for each of these meltdowns remain consistent.
First, where there is a clear right and wrong side, Trump will choose the wrong one: white supremacists over those who oppose them, Russia over America.
Second, he refuses to put much effort into his job or to learn about issues. In the case of Russia, he doesn’t see any reason for Russia to have conducted the hacking, because he hasn’t bothered to read the detailed evidence or understand how Russian efforts to destabilize other countries work. Trump prepared for the meeting with Putin by golfing over the weekend.
Third, he continues to ignore his advisers, who have warned him away from Putin time and again, and who consistently accept the reality of Russian interference. Just as they vainly pleaded with Trump “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Putin on his reelection, they planned Monday’s meeting with Putin as a confrontational one, in which Trump would call the Russians out. It doesn’t speak much to the aides’ judgment that they really expected Trump to do that, and it shows how Trump improvises as he goes, rejecting any counsel he receives. “This was not the plan,” a White House official griped to CNN’s Jeff Zeleny on Monday. That echoed almost verbatim what an official told Zeleny during the Charlottesville morass: “That was all him—this wasn’t our plan.”
Fourth, Trump continues to obsess over the 2016 election, almost two years after the vote. On the dais in Helsinki, he again showed that he cannot separate the question of Russian interference from the legitimacy of his own victory. “I beat Hillary Clinton easily, and frankly, we beat her, and I’m not saying from the standpoint—we won that race, and it’s a shame there can be even a little bit of a cloud over it,” Trump said, an objectively strange thing to say standing alongside a foreign adversary, in the context of criminal interference in the election. Trump’s fear that the Russia investigation might undermine his legitimacy drove his firing of Comey, too.
Fifth, Trump often bluntly contradicts himself when put in a bind. His remarks on Tuesday are only the latest example. When his first remarks about Charlottesville were panned, Trump delivered a more conventional response two days later. But then, the day after that, still stung by the criticism, he lashed out and said there were good people among the white nationalists. After the White House issued a statement saying Comey was fired for mishandling the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Trump contradicted his aides and said he fired Comey because of the Russia probe. These reversals may be simple panic, but they also make it impossible to ever know what the president really believes.