It’s often hard to parse a historic marker, to pluck one from the velocity of events, but Helsinki may truly be the extraordinary moment when Donald Trump’s worst traits were so blatantly self-exposed that even some of his own partisans, in Congress and the conservative media, were compelled to confront the truth.
Presidents typically succeed by controlling the narratives around them. Trump has long understood that concept, dating back to his ’80s social swirl, when he spun his way through the New York tabloids with leaked tidbits about himself. But Helsinki proved that when the stakes are highest, when the nation’s security is threatened by a seasoned enemy standing a few feet away, Trump cannot bring the requisite A-game. And the Republicans who revered Ronald Reagan as The Great Communicator, as the stalwart foe of an “evil empire,” are saddled with a president who verbally waffles in defense of his country—at the precise moment when Americans want clarity.
Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, is not alone when he says that the Russian attack on the 2016 election is “our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11.” But the difference, in the wake of those disasters, was that Presidents Roosevelt and Bush did not respond with ambivalence. By contrast, though Trump was briefed even before his inauguration that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the cyberattacks, as The New York Times reported Thursday, he has still spent much of this week lost in his own verbiage, futilely chasing a consistent narrative.
In Helsinki on Monday, with Putin virtually at his elbow and the whole world watching, he refused to endorse the U.S. intelligence consensus that he has known for the past 18 months. Referring to Putin, Trump declared: “He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.” But in Washington on Tuesday, Trump said that would should’ve been wouldn’t. He read a walk-back statement: “The sentence should have been, ‘I don't see any reason why I wouldn’t, or why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Then he watered down his rote praise for America’s spy agencies (“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place”) with an improvised caveat (“Could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there”)—which prompted jokes on social media that Trump was poised to resurrect his mythical 400-pound hacker.
Then came yesterday’s episode, when Trump said “no” to a shouted press question about whether he believes that Russia is still trying to influence American elections—which later prompted a cleanup effort by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. She insisted that Trump didn’t say “no” to the election question, and that he’d actually uttered a general “no” to all the reporters who were asking questions. (White House reporters who had witnessed the exchange didn’t buy Sanders’s explanation.)
And to further complicate the White House response, key government officials—including the director of national intelligence, a Trump appointee—are openly contradicting the president. This, too, appears to be historic. Dan Coats, the DNI director, said within hours of the Helsinki summit, in a statement that was not vetted by the White House: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Trump, whose national approval rating generally hovers in the low 40s, is heavily dependent on support from the conservative media—but Helsinki has fractured that allegiance as well. Even for many of those cheerleaders, his toadying to Putin on live TV was too much to bear. The reliably pro-Trump Wall Street Journal editorial page said: “Monday’s joint press conference was a personal and national embarrassment.” Fox News ran this headline on its website: “Putin eats Trump’s lunch in Helsinki,” and the Fox reporter John Roberts said that Trump had thrown the United States “under the bus.”
But perhaps Helsinki will not prove truly historic unless a critical mass of elected Republicans peel away from Trump. This has not happened. Senators and members of Congress have furrowed their brows and voiced dissent about the summit—mostly to reiterate support for U.S. intelligence agencies, while stopping well short of criticizing Trump’s behavior. Typical is Marco Rubio, who as a 2016 candidate had warned that Trump would be a national-security disaster. Rubio said, after the president walked back his comments: “I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. Suffice it to say that for me as a policymaker, what really matters is what we do moving forward.”
Fealty to the stalled Republican agenda, and to the impending Brett Kavanaugh court nomination, still hold sway—as do the loyal sentiments of pro-Trump voters back home. Unless or until that constituency abandons Trump, most Washington lawmakers will continue to live in fear of being challenged on their right flank in Republican primaries. They know what happened to Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was bounced by GOP voters in last month’s primary, for the sin of occasionally criticizing Trump.
In 1968, plagued by Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson knew he was cooked when he “lost” Walter Cronkite. In today’s polarized political climate and democratized publishing environment, there is no equivalent barometer to test American consensus. For Trump to lose his hard-core support, it may well require a debacle worse than Helsinki—a historic moment America can ill afford to suffer.