Trump Has Learned Nothing

The president's waffling on Russian interference was part of a weeklong meltdown—a summer tradition that started during his campaign.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama liked to go to Martha’s Vineyard. George W. Bush repaired to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Donald Trump has already cultivated his own summer tradition: the catastrophic, week-long meltdown.

This summer’s edition started Thursday, when Trump departed the NATO summit in Brussels, leaving behind a trail of chaos. It could have been worse: Headed into the summit, some analysts were worried he’d blow the alliance up altogether. But that doesn’t mean it went well.

Ahead of the summit, Trump launched a scathing Twitter attack against Germany for purchasing gas and oil from Russia, arguing, in his classic I’m-rubber-you’re-glue fashion, that Berlin is compromised. Trump falsely claimed that he’d forced members to spend more, when their commitment to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense dates to 2014. He demanded NATO double that commitment to 4 percent, rattling allies and sending the Pentagon scrambling to reassure them. The outreach didn’t really help. Although Trump claimed that “we … have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago,” other members didn’t feel the same way. Germany’s foreign minister even said that the United States was no longer a fully reliable ally.

From Brussels, Trump went on to the United Kingdom. One of his first acts there was to give a blunt interview to the tabloid The Sun, in which he disparaged Prime Minister Theresa May’s stewardship of Brexit (patronizingly calling her “Theresa”), undermined her government by saying that recently resigned Foreign Minister Boris Johnson would be a good prime minister, and seemed to foreclose the chance of a bilateral trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K.

That was just a warm-up. During a press conference with May on Friday, Trump called his own interview with the newspaper “fake news” and threatened to release a recording that would disprove it. He hasn’t, and besides, The Sun had already posted a recording. Trump insisted that he hadn’t criticized May when he plainly had. Also during the presser, he claimed, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that he’d been in Scotland the day before Brexit, and he heckled CNN and NBC reporters. Later, the president meandered through an awkward meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

From England, he headed north for a taxpayer-funded infomercial for Turnberry, his golf resort on Scotland’s west coast, in the latest example of Trump using the presidency to garner free publicity for his private businesses, from which he has not divested. Turnberry could use the help: The resort is hemorrhaging money (and it’s unclear where Trump got the cash to buy the club in the first place).

In Scotland on Sunday, Trump gave an interview to CBS in which he described the European Union—a group that is an American ally, and is composed of strong American allies—as a “foe,” positioning the EU as similar to (if not worse than) Russia and China.

Later that day he flew to Helsinki, in preparation for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Expectations ahead of time were extremely low, and yet Trump still managed to miss them by a long shot. The president’s press conference may well have been the most outrageous moment in an administration that has numbed the public to outrage. Simply by dignifying Putin with the encounter, he welcomed Russia back to an international community from which it had been ostracized for its illegal seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

The substance was even worse. Trump kowtowed to Putin, appearing deferential onstage. Regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump took the word of a despot and a liar at face value, disparaging the conclusions of every American intelligence agency that has looked into the interference, as well as those of bipartisan congressional inquiries. Three days after the Justice Department released a detailed indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for the hacking of Democratic email systems, Trump dismissed the investigation, saying he couldn’t see why Russia would have been involved. He blamed the United States for criminal interference intended to subvert its democracy. He cut off a reporter who said he’d called Putin an adversary, saying that he’d merely labeled him a “competitor.” He rhapsodized about his victory in the 2016 election. He attacked the FBI. He welcomed the idea of Russian intelligence officers helping to investigate their own hacking.

By the end of the appearance, as my colleague James Fallows wrote, the only reasonable interpretation of Trump’s behavior was that he is acting as a conscious agent of Russian interests, or is too ignorant to understand how he is helping Russia. Trump’s performance was so bad that it was almost universally panned—not just by liberal commentators; not just by the mainstream media; not just by longtime, nonpartisan government officials; but also by a procession of Fox News personalities, right up until Trump’s staunchest champions, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, came on in prime time.

Newt Gingrich, who has become an acrobatically agile defender of anything Trump says and does, called the press conference a mistake and said he hoped Trump would “clarify” his comments—as though there was any doubt about what the president had said. The former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, who once wrote an essay comparing the obligation to vote for Trump to the duty of the passengers who took down Flight 93 on 9/11, canceled a CNN appearance, saying that even he couldn’t defend Trump’s comments. Congressional Republicans flatly contradicted Trump’s statements and said Russia was to blame.

On Tuesday, trying to calm the furor, Trump briefly spoke at the White House, reversing many of his most controversial statements in Helsinki. He really did accept the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian meddling, Trump said (except he speculated that there might be other culprits). And he claimed he actually meant to say that he didn’t see any reason Russia would not be behind the attacks. The president seemed to hope that if he said something radically different at home, it would erase the damage done by his comments in Helsinki, ignoring the confusion sown by his neck-snapping and dubious reversal.

This feels like a low point, and yet the nation has been here several times recently. Trump’s past six days are reminiscent of last summer’s meltdown, which was caused by his response after white supremacists initiated violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before that, there was a 10-day stretch in May 2017 when the presidency seemed to be falling apart: Trump fired FBI Director James Comey; contradicted his own official justification for the firing; welcomed Russian officials into the Oval Office; disclosed to them highly sensitive classified information obtained by an ally; demonstrated economic illiteracy in an interview; and threatened Comey with (nonexistent) tapes of their conversations, setting in motion the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Before that was his August 2016 meltdown, as Trump’s polling collapsed, he feuded with Gold Star parents, he blamed victims of sexual harassment, he verbally attacked firefighters, and he called for allowing Russia to annex Crimea. (It is surprising how often Russia crops up during these meltdowns.) Then, as in other circumstances, he faced a sharp, but brief, Republican backlash.

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.

Sixth, each of these cases coincides with the increasingly rare occasions when non–Fox News personalities get a chance to ask Trump questions. In Helsinki, Reuters’s Jeff Mason and the Associated Press’s Jonathan Lemire both asked sharp questions that elicited surprising answers from Trump. The president went off the rails about Charlottesville during a freewheeling press conference at Trump Tower. He admitted to NBC News’s Lester Holt that, contrary to the official White House spin, he’d decided to fire Comey on his own.

It has always been futile to expect Trump to change, as a parade of failed prophecies of presidential pivots attest. But even if he were able to become someone different, he has little incentive to do so. After all, he got elected after that August 2016 meltdown, and a few others besides. Since getting elected, he’s endured several more. Sure, his poll numbers will dip, but they’re already bad, and they never fall that much farther. Sure, there will be harsh media coverage, but Trump has long since declared the media his adversary anyway. Sure, Democrats will bay, but haven’t they been doing that since June 2015? Sure, Republicans will condemn him and break ranks—but give it a few days, and they’ll quiet down and move on to other matters. Already Tuesday morning, Republicans in Congress were solemnly lamenting to Politico that, yes, what Trump said was very bad, but there’s really nothing they can do about it.

As I wrote in January, the Trump administration’s true equilibrium is chaos. The White House exists in a state of perpetual disaster, punctuated by rare flare-ups as serious as the past week and even rarer victories. Trump can’t and won’t learn anything, and the people responsible for holding him accountable either can’t or won’t do so. The current moment will fade in a few days and be replaced by some new outrage, but it’s only a matter of time before there’s a new meltdown.