Donald Trump has rarely faced as much criticism from his own party as he did immediately after the press conference he hosted with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake condemned Trump's assertion that he trusts Putin more than U.S. intelligence agencies. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan spoke out, as did former politicians like Newt Gingrich and the typically combative and trollish Joe Walsh.
Of course, any of these Republicans could use their positions and power to try to check Trump, but luckily for them the president gave them an out before they had to make a big show of having a spine in public. On Tuesday, Trump read from a statement saying that he got a single word wrong when he was speaking next to Putin. "I see no reason why it would be Russia," he had said, when what he really meant to say was "I see no reason why it wouldn't be." He added that he couldn't understand all the hoopla at the time and went back and reviewed the transcripts, at which point he discovered the error.
This story is suspect for several reasons, the least of which is the hilarious notion that Trump has ever reviewed or re-read anything. Pinning his entire explanation on that one sentence glosses over everything Trump said before that sentence at the same conference, not to mention the months and months that he's invested in undermining the credibility of the FBI and Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation. At a glance, this looks like a repeat of Trump's comments after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where he refused to condemn the neo-Nazi demonstrators before finally giving a lukewarm statement days later. But unlike Charlottesville, the Republican establishment and the Trump administration took this seriously.
Reportedly, there was a coordinated effort in Trump's cabinet to minimize damage and persuade the president to reverse his comments. According to Bloomberg:
Early Tuesday morning, Trump dug in, unwilling to back down from his remarks, according to a person familiar with discussions. At 10:33 a.m. Washington time, Trump tweeted out a message thanking Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky for supportive comments on the Helsinki press conference.
But later Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had a private conversation with Trump to urge him to make clarifications, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal decision-making.
Pence may be the best-positioned person to talk Trump down in this situation. While Trump seems to vacillate between indifference and revulsion for most people in his administration, his choice of Pence as his vice president is reportedly the decision he's most proud of since he started his presidential run. So Pence has both clout and a degree of security. Other cabinet members aren't so lucky. Per Vanity Fair:
But Chief of Staff John Kelly was irate. According to a source, he told Trump it would make things worse for him with Robert Mueller. He also exerted pressure to try to get the president to walk back his remarks. According to three sources familiar with the situation, Kelly called around to Republicans on Capitol Hill and gave them the go-ahead to speak out against Trump.
John Kelly may not be long for his position as Trump's chief of staff, but the president finally crossed a line that Kelly and many Republicans found unacceptable. Caging and drugging immigrant children didn't make the cut, apparently, but fawning over Putin did.