The Trump White House on Wednesday returned to a familiar pattern, fighting through multiple self-imposed controversies and confusing even its own allies.
President Donald Trump didn’t personally walk anything back, unlike on Tuesday. He left the mopping up to his top spokeswoman a day after he — in a rare move — admitted a mistake by amending one word of a 45-minute Finland press conference with Vladimir Putin that rattled both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
But as the sun was rising on his second day back from a rocky European swing, Trump had returned to his contrarian ways.
Despite scorn over statements he made supporting Putin’s version of reality over his own intelligence agencies, and the Tuesday walk-back, Trump declared the summit a “success.”
Later, he threatened European countries and automakers with “tremendous retribution” unless he gets his way in tariff negotiations.
Then the commander in chief appeared to publicly break with his hand-picked director of national intelligence for the second time in three days.
“The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Friday about Russia’s intentions for November’s midterm elections during an event at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
But when asked if Russia is still targeting the United States and its midterms, Trump responded “no” — again appearing to break with Coats.
Watch: Trump on Whether Russia is Still Targeting the US: ‘No’
That prompted his top spokeswoman to tell reporters hours later that the boss was not replying to the reporter’s question. Rather, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, he was telling her he wouldn’t be answering questions.
“We certainly believe we are taking steps so they cannot do it again,” Sanders said. “He does believe that they would target U.S. elections again.”
Not having it
Some Democrats immediately rejected Trump’s Tuesday attempt to tamp down the Helsinki controversy, while some of his GOP allies gave him the benefit of the doubt.
But come Wednesday, the president was leaving even his fellow Republicans confused. Members instantly thought the president had answered the Russia meddling question.
For instance, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he was “dumbfounded” by Trump’s assessment that Russia is no longer targeting the United States and its fast-approaching congressional elections.
Showcasing the growing chasm between the president and his intelligence boss, the South Carolina Republican said he hears the opposite from Coats.
But then Graham said he believed the White House staff’s version of things.
“I have just been reassured unequivocally by the White House legislative team that the president’s ‘no’ response today to shouted questions was not intended to suggest that President Trump doubts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is continuing to attack our critical infrastructure in the 2018 elections,” Graham said in a statement.
Not everyone was buying it, though.
Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner called Trump’s remark “simply false,” tweeting his comment was “directly contradicted by DNI Coats.”
“I’ll take Dan Coats’ word over Putin’s any day,” the Virginia Democrat added.
This is simply false. Directly contradicted by DNI Coats, who just sounded the alarm about Russia's "ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."I'll take Dan Coats' word over Putin's any day. https://t.co/f018vLBQTR — Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) July 18, 2018
Sanders fielded a pointed question, after the White House’s second clarification in 24 hours, about whether anything the president and his team say should be viewed as credible.
“We never said, ‘Just kidding,’” she said, asserting that Trump is credible because he recognized he misspoke in Finland and wanted to correct the alleged misstep.
Divided they stand
One thing is clear: Trump remains out of step with the intelligence community and congressional leaders, even those in his own party. The full slate of reasons may not yet be known, other than his years-old desire to warm relations between the countries that possess the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
“Let me tell you, we are doing very well ... probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia,” he told reporters Wednesday.
That has not stopped chatter in Congress about some kind of resolution or legislation condemning Russia, whether it be from Trump critics like GOP Sen. Jeff Flake or members of the leadership team, like National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner.
And the White House damage control has not stopped former intelligence officials from criticizing Trump.
Michael C.H. McDaniel, a retired Army one-star general who is now an associate dean of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officers “protect our nation’s interests from the likes of global terrorists including Russian interference and influence.”
“These comments by our president will not deter the work of our dedicated intelligence officers,” McDaniel said. “For the most part, these fine men and women work feverishly behind the scenes and serve as the backbone to our nation’s defense and their loyalty to nation should be commended by all.”
Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.