Jul. 17

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What Just Happened?

Yesterday, in advance of Donald Trump's summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, we wrote, "brace for something unexpected and/or outrageous." Predicting that much was not difficult, since "unexpected" and "outrageous" are Trump's stock in trade. However, nobody would have predicted exactly what did happen, and that the Donald would shoot himself in the foot so badly he might have used a Howitzer.

The fun got started before the summit was even underway, as the President decided to get on Twitter and share some choice thoughts about the relationship between Russia and the United States:

Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018

It's a truly staggering sentiment coming from anyone, much less the President of the United States. It would appear that the Russians are not only blameless for any interference with the 2016 election, but also for illegally annexing Crimea, taking sides against the U.S. in Syria, engaging in widespread human rights abuses, or for anything else. Trump should probably have gotten a clue that something was awry when the Russian foreign ministry jumped on Twitter to agree wholeheartedly:

We agree https://t.co/7l087Qwmj3

— MFA Russia ���� (@mfa_russia) July 16, 2018

But all of this was just the prelude—the real drama was yet to come.

The actual summit got started a couple of hours after that tweet (with Vladimir Putin fully aware of what Trump had written, by the way). They talked for roughly two hours, assisted only by one interpreter each (more on that below). Reportedly, they talked a bit about Syria, and a bit about North Korea, and a bit about China. However, most of their discussion was quickly relegated to "beside the point" status once the post-summit press conference got underway. When Trump was asked the question that at least a billion people around the world knew was coming—about Russian interference in the 2016 elections—he declared that he doesn't "see any reason why" Russia would be responsible, and said, "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today." Trump also suggested that he was open to Putin's offer to interrogate the 12 Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last Friday. In short, the President of the United States is now on record as saying he trusts the FSB (aka KGB v2.0) more than his own intelligence agencies.

Trump has, of course, pushed counterfactual narratives before. Heck, he launched his political career on a foundation of Obama birtherism. However, he has never been more fully in denial than he was on Monday. The United States' five main intelligence agencies—the CIA, NSA, NGA, FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—have uniformly agreed that Russia interfered with the elections. Mueller's indictments, particularly the ones from Friday, lay the case out for interference in great detail. The intelligence apparatus of key allies, most obviously the British Secret Intelligence Service, has said that the Russians meddled. Heck, at this point, even Putin himself has basically admitted it. In an interview with Fox News that aired on Monday night, the Russian leader said:

Russia as a state has never interfered with the internal affairs of the United States, let alone its elections...Listen to me, please: The information that I am aware of, there is nothing false about it, every single grain of it is true. And the Democratic leadership admitted it.

In other words, "We didn't do anything, but just in case we did, no harm done, right?" Putin's words bear a striking resemblance to the book O.J. Simpson wrote, in which he said, "I didn't do it, but if I had done it, here's how and why."

After the whole fiasco had played out, Donald Trump got onto his airplane and traveled back to the U.S. while the world responded to his words and actions. And, in short, just about everyone whose name does not rhyme with "Pike Mence" or "Hean Shannity" had their torches out. A sampling of the responses:

Democratic Politicians: Left-leaning Media: Republican Politicians: Current and Former Members of Team Trump: Right-leaning Media: International Media:

It was the New York Daily News, however, that really managed (as they so often do) to put a fine point on it:

Open Treason

It wasn't just the Daily News, either. There were a lot of op-eds on Monday arguing that (1) A state of cyber-war exists between the U.S. and Russia, and (2) That Trump just gave "aid and comfort" to the enemy, such that he did indeed commit treason. It is also the case that the top two trending hashtags on twitter on Monday were #Treason and #TreasonSummit. Given that Congress is, at the moment, entirely unwilling to press forward with impeachment proceedings, it's unlikely they are willing to charge Trump with treason and send him to the gallows. Nonetheless, it is never a good look for a politician's name and the word "treason" to appear in the same sentence.

While he was still on Air Force One, and as the negative responses were coming fast and furious, Trump seemed to realize he might have really stepped in it, and he tried to do some damage control, sending out this Tweet:

As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018

Someone at the White House reached the same conclusion, as they sent out some slickly-produced tweets like this one designed to change the narrative:

A productive dialogue is not only good for the United States and good for Russia, but it is good for the world. #HELSINKI2018 pic.twitter.com/Q2Y1PhM9au

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018

At least so far, these attempts to clean up Trump's mess have not done the administration much good.

So, as the headline asks: What happened here? How did Trump blow it so badly? Here are some possible explanations that are bouncing around:

Not all of these theories can be correct, especially since some of them are mutually exclusive. But the truth is probably a mix of a few items on the list.

And now, an even bigger question than "What happened?" Namely: "What's next?" Here are some possible answers to that question:

And there it is, 24 hours out. It is truly the only story today, and is going to be the main story for at least a few days, so undoubtedly we'll have more about it tomorrow. (Z)

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