The Week in Washington: Trump Insults NATO and Theresa May—But Not Putin
“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. [Clinton’s] saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?” Donald Trump said in September 2016, during the first presidential debate.
On Friday, while the president and his wife were sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth, the Mueller committee confirmed that it was not in fact an elusive obese person who was responsible for massive election meddling. That afternoon, investigators issued a 29-page indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign. As The New York Times put it, the “indictment is the most detailed accusation by the American government to date of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election, and it includes a litany of brazen Russian subterfuge operations meant to foment chaos in the months before Election Day.”
Though Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he briefed Trump on the coming indictments before the he left for his European junket, the president shrugged off this stunning development. Asked at a news conference on Friday whether he would bring up election interference during his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday, he responded that he would, but cautioned not to get your hopes up, saying, “I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me.’ . . . There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?"
That’s for sure. Could it only have been last Monday that the president announced Brett Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court nominee? In addition to the candidate’s impeccable ultraright credentials, he stood out from the pack for another reason: In the past, he has signaled that he doesn’t believe a sitting president can be indicted. On Tuesday, the president left for the NATO summit in Brussels, where he maligned and attempted to bully the other heads of state in attendance. (John Kelly looked like he was going to throw up during Trump’s breakfast bombast; Sarah Huckabee Sanders later attributed the defense secretary’s nauseated expression to disappointment with the skimpy menu.) But by Thursday, Trump was tweeting: “Great success today at NATO! Billions of additional dollars paid by members since my election. Great spirit!”
It was hardly the only reversal of the week. After excoriating Theresa May in an interview with The Sun in London that was published even as he was dining on Scottish salmon and Hereford beef fillet with the prime minister—in the interview he criticized her Brexit strategy—the next day at a joint press conference he tried to walk these insults back, describing their relationship as “the highest level of special.” Even though the Sun remarks were recorded, he accused the paper of printing fake news. (This was reminiscent of another demurral: Last year, he claimed that the notorious Access Hollywood tape, in which he brags about his ability to assault women, was perhaps likewise doctored.)
The Trump/May press conference included other highlights: asked about immigration, the president offered an implicit white nationalist position: “I think it has been very bad, for Europe . . . I think what has happened is very tough. It’s a very tough situation—you see the same terror attacks that I do. I just think it is changing the culture, I think it is a very negative thing for Europe. I know it is politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I will say it and I will say it loud.” To which May, rarely profile in courage, was moved to respond: “The U.K. has a proud history of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution to our country. . . . Over the years, overall, immigration has been good for the U.K.”
The President may have been jetting around Europe, but things were hardly quiet at home. On Thursday, FBI agent Peter Strzok was subjected to 10 hours of grilling by a congressional committee, ostensibly because he shared anti-Trump texts with his then-paramour, Lisa Page, another FBI employee, back in 2016. When the texts came to light, Mueller promptly removed Strzok and Page from the Russia investigation, but this hardly mollified accusers. The kangaroo court, which reminded some viewers of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, included hour after hour of personal attacks, including this, from Rep. Paul Gosar, who apparently saw something he didn’t like in Strzok’s posture: “I am a dentist. So I read body language very, very well.”
Can Vlad read body language as well? On Friday afternoon, after the announcement of the Mueller indictments, there were calls for Trump to cancel his Monday meeting with Putin. But the White House did not appear to be shocked, enraged, outraged—or even slightly perturbed that a foreign power had attempted to wreck the integrity of the United States, instead focusing narrowly on what the report didn’t assert—at least not yet. “Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” an administration spokesperson said in a statement. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.” And the president himself ignored the rising din, stating just a few hours before the indictments were handed down: “I call it the rigged witch hunt. I think that really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.” His Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats had a far different assessment. “The warning signs are there,” he cautioned on Friday. “The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point. . . . Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”