Trump Can Never Go Too Far for Republicans

Even the most serious GOP senators were willing to take the president at his word on Russia—no matter how transparent his excuses.

Senator Rob Portman
Senator Rob Portman (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

Give Donald Trump and his team this much: They didn’t have a lot to work with.

Facing an uproar even among allies, the president on Tuesday sought to reverse the controversial comments he’d made alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland. Speaking before a meeting with members of Congress, Trump said that in contrast to his remarks in Helsinki, he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion blaming Russia for election interference—though he immediately undercut that by saying others might have been involved. (“Could have been other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”) He also claimed that he had misspoken.

“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would instead of wouldn’t,” Trump said. “The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’”

Even by the standards of the chronically dishonest Trump White House, this was flimsy. For one thing, Trump has repeatedly said he did not believe that Russia had interfered, though he’s waffled on occasion. For another, he immediately undermined his own statement. But the most audacious claim was that he had meant “wouldn’t” instead of “would,” which required discarding the president’s long history of casting doubt on Russian interference, the immediate context for his remarks in Helsinki, and his insistence that he intended to use a double negative.

The obvious, immediate question was: Who would ever believe this?

The answer came almost as immediately: Republicans in Congress.

As I wrote Tuesday, the main goal of Trump’s comments seemed to be to quiet friendly fire from the GOP. To do that, the president had to offer just the slightest cover to Republican leaders. Even if his denial wasn’t credible, it was at least a denial. If Trump’s would/wouldn’t excuse was cynical, it also proved effective, at least before a New York Times report Wednesday night revealed that the president knew all along about Putin’s direct involvement in the meddling.

“I’m glad he clarified his comments today,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said Tuesday afternoon on Fox News. “But I wish he had said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday. I take him at his word if he said he misspoke, absolutely.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed.

“I’m just glad he clarified it,” he said. “I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. Suffice it to say that for me as a policy maker, what really matters is what we do moving forward.”

Senator John Thune of South Dakota said, “Ahh, well, I mean, I guess it’s probably the best we’re going to be able to get.” Give Thune credit for candor, or at least for a Kinsley gaffe: Intentionally or not, he made clear that the game was getting the best available walk-back and moving on.

None of these senators is a particularly strong ally of the president. In 2016, Portman withdrew his support of Trump over the Access Hollywood tape, and Thune called on him to withdraw from the election. Rubio savaged Trump when they were rivals during the GOP primary, though he later aligned himself with the nominee. While all three have since reached accommodations with Trump, it’s striking that the senators, all of whom have reputations for sobriety and seriousness, were willing to accept such a thin excuse and take the president at his word—or even treat his word as reliable.

Just as the waters were settling, the president roiled them a bit more on Wednesday, after a reporter asked him whether he believes Russia is still trying to interfere with American elections, as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has said. Trump said no to something—reporters in the room believed he was answering the question, while Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted the “no” was not in response to that query. The White House has done little to deserve the benefit of the doubt, but video of the incident is ambiguous. While Trump has made clear in the past that he doesn’t believe Russia meddled or is currently interfering, this moment is less clear.

Trump’s apparent “no” restarted the chorus of critics. Senator Susan Collins tweeted, “The Russians continue efforts to undermine Western democracies, including ours. The President is wrong and needs to heed the warnings from our Intelligence Community, including DNI Dan Coats.” Senator Lindsey Graham, who was one of the most strident critics of Trump’s comments in Helsinki, said he was “dumbfounded,” and added that the president “owes it to the country to tell us why he doesn’t believe Russia is doing what the intelligence community says they’re doing. I think he owes it to the country and to the Congress to explain this discrepancy.”

Yet after the White House reached out to him, Graham announced he was ready to believe the president:

In the hours immediately after Trump’s press conference with Putin, pundits wondered whether this moment was different from the president’s previous meltdowns, and whether Republicans would truly turn on him this time.

The fact that leading Republicans signaled their willingness to accept Trump’s would/wouldn’t excuse should put that notion to rest. There will always be a few outspoken critics in the GOP—Jeff Flake or, on occasion, Bob Corker—but this episode suggests that there may be no turning point when the president says something that’s simply too far for his allies in Congress to accept.