That didn't clean up good
Before "The Apprentice" made reality show history, there was "That's Incredible!" Which brings us to how President Donald Trump on Tuesday tried to climb out of the hole he had dug himself the day before by sidling up to Russia's Vladimir Putin and stomping on his own people — a spectacle that embarrassed even his friends on "Fox and Friends."
Reading from a script, Trump said he had gotten his words mixed up at the Helsinki news conference when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — contradicting the conclusion of the intelligence community and officials in his Cabinet, as well as congressional investigating committees and charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department.
"The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or why it wouldn't be Russia" instead of "why it would," Trump said. His meaning "should have been obvious," said Trump, who has persistently voiced doubts it was Russia.
"I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place," Trump declared. And then he walked back from the walk-back. "It could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all," he said.
Trump's assertion to have misspoken about "wouldn't"/"would" didn't quite square with his other remarks Monday — that "President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial," not to mention the Russian president's "incredible offer" to help Mueller investigate the indicted Russian military intelligence agents.
Scorched by the firestorm that ensued, Trump pledged — reading again from his script — that his administration "will continue to move aggressively" to "repel . . . any efforts to interfere in our elections" and "We're doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018."
Did they buy it?
In the annals of Trump's whiplash-inducing U-turns, his alibi Tuesday ranked alongside his sudden, never-explained disavowal of the birther conspiracy theory he promoted about former President Barack Obama and his temporary retreat from his "fine people on both sides" reflection on the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of trying to “squirm away” from what he said as he stood alongside Putin in Helsinki. “It’s 24 hours too late and in the wrong place,” Schumer said.
Trump still had a big problem with Republicans, too, who saw a lot more damage to control from the American president's submissive posture toward the Russian strongman and his cage-rattling with NATO allies last week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he might push legislation for sanctions on any country that interferes in U.S. elections. "I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018," he said. On NATO, McConnell said, "the European countries are our friends and the Russians are not."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was "more than happy" to consider more sanctions on Russia: "I understand the desire and the need to have good relations . . . but Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests and it does not share our values."
Janison: Trump's im-Put-ince
However much Trump may want to please Putin, he hasn't been able to deliver much, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
U.S. sanctions endure, including those passed by Congress last year about Trump's bitter objections, and could get tougher because of the backlash on the Helsinki summit. Russian compounds in the United States were seized and remain in federal hands. The United States is due to proceed with big weapons sales to Kiev for use against Putin-backed separatists. NATO remains intact.
It is as if Trump is an outlier in his own government.
Circling the MAGA'ns
Trump's "clarification" on Russia's role in election interference didn't come easy. He was feeling triumphant when he left Helsinki. His mood changed on Air Force One when he saw the negative coverage. He didn't get it.
In a tweet Tuesday morning, he groused: "While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way — the Fake News is going Crazy!"
So were some of his most loyal allies. "President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately," tweeted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But Trump stayed dug in until Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo persuaded him to try to douse the firestorm.
Lock them . . . — er, scratch that
A photo of Trump's prepared talking points shows he made a handwritten addition — "no collusion," as if he'd forget to mention that. There was a significant omission, too — he crossed out a line that said, "Anyone involved in that meddling to justice."
Trump's disinterest could be interpreted as keeping his options open to respond to the continuing investigation — or the "rigged witch hunt," as he prefers to call it — such as by trying to shut down Mueller or dangling the prospect of pardons to discourage defendants from turning on him.
A Mueller-Manafort mystery
Mueller wants to give a form of immunity to five potential witnesses in the upcoming trials of Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, according to court papers.
Mueller's office said the witnesses have not been identified publicly in connection with the case, and they were not named on Tuesday. In the meantime, a judge turned down Manafort's bid to move one of the trials hundreds of miles from Alexandria, Virginia, where his lawyers complained that an inside-the-Beltway jury would be too liberal and too aware of news coverage to give him a fair trial. Trump lamented to Fox's Sean Hannity Monday that Manafort — facing charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and money-laundering — "clearly is a nice man” who is being treated "like Al Capone."
What else is happening:
- Former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN that Trump's sensitivity about the legitimacy of his election caused his self-inflicted wound: "Anytime somebody puts their ego and their pride in the situation, they can get emotionally charged and they can make tactical and strategic mistakes, and I believe he did that in Helsinki."
- Without evidence, the president tweeted early Wednesday: "Russia has agreed to help with North Korea, where relationships with us are very good and the process is moving along. There is no rush, the sanctions remain!"
- Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch threatened to push for legislation to curb Trump's trade authority if he moves forward with more tariffs. It was the strongest warning from Hatch, chairman of the Finance Committee, CNBC reported.
- Republican Sen. Bob Corker likened the force of revulsion about the Helsinki fiasco to a dam breaking and suggested it will help Congress push back on tariffs. "As the president taxes Americans with tariffs, he pushes away our allies and further strengthens Putin. It is time for Congress to step up and take back our authorities," Corker tweeted.
- Japan and the European Union, which generate one-third of the world economy, signed a deal that creates an open-trade zone for more than 600 million people. Trump is in a trade war with the EU and pulled the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included Japan.
- Ryan is showing little sympathy for moves by the most fervent House Republican foes of the Russia investigation to try to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Politico reports. McConnell called the idea "far-fetched."
- New York and three other Democrat-led states sued the Trump administration Tuesday, saying a Republican-led tax overhaul unconstitutionally targeted “blue” states, Newsday's Yancey Roy reports. Analysts have cast doubt on the potential success of such a claim — a claim critics say has little legal merit.
Longtime Republican lawman James Comey now urges Americans to vote for Democratic candidates in November, saying: "This Republican Congress has proven incapable of fulfilling the Founders’ design that “Ambition must ... counteract ambition.”
- The U.S. government paid Trump's Turnberry golf resort in Scotland about $61,000 for the president's weekend stay there, according to a review of records by The Scotsman newspaper.