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Words fail him: When what Trump said isn't what he's saying

President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting

President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday at the White House. Credit: AFP / Getty Images/Nicholas Kamm

In cahoots? No, just incoherent

It takes a Potemkin village to try to becloud the impression Donald Trump keeps leaving: that he's a sucker for whatever Vladimir Putin tells him.

Lately, the White House's explanation is that the president who boasts "I have the best words" can't find the right ones to say what he means and so accidentally says the opposite. Or that the answer he gave wasn't connected to the question that was asked. These slow-arriving moments of clarifications tend to come after he is persuaded by aides and advisers that the firestorms he has ignited aren't going to burn themselves out.

So a day after Trump said it "should have been obvious" he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 election and blamed a verbal slip-up for taking a contrary position while standing next to Putin in Helsinki, this happened:

ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega, in the room for the start of a Cabinet meeting, asked, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”

“Thank you very much. No,” Trump responded, shaking his head.

“No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”

“No,” Trump repeated, looking at Vega.

It sounded very much like Trump — just as he did in Helsinki — was blowing off the red flags waved by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said last week that "the warning lights are blinking red again" on Russian cyberattack threats.

Three hours later, at her briefing for reporters, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump's "No" didn't mean "No" to whether Russia continued to target the U.S. The president was saying "no" to further questions, she said. But Trump kept talking in response to the questions, saying, "there's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia" Click here for video of the exchange. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Version 3.0

The president takes an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." But hey, there's nothing in there about being consistent from day to day or hour to hour.

So Trump said in an interview with CBS News Wednesday that he agrees with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016, and pointed out "I have said that numerous times before." (He has cast doubt on the findings numerous times, too — including on Tuesday, within seconds of saying he accepted them. But we move on.)

Follow-up question: Is Putin personally responsible? "Certainly as the leader of a country, you would have to hold him responsible, yes," Trump said, and "I let him know we can't have this." On Monday, Trump said he found Putin "extremely strong and powerful in his denial."

Janison: OMG, that mouse could roar

In a Fox News interview Tuesday night with acolyte Tucker Carlson, Trump stirred fresh doubt about his commitment to NATO's core principle — regarding an attack on one member of the alliance as an attack on all. The question concerned NATO newbie Montenegro, a tiny Balkans country with a population of 29,000, which sent troops to support the U.S. effort in Afghanistan years before joining the alliance. 

"They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III," Trump fretted. The comment had a "no aggressor — you're the aggressor" flavor, as it was Montenegro's prime minister whom Trump physically pushed out of his way en route to a photo op at a 2017 NATO meeting.

Coming back to 2018, Newsday's Dan Janison writes that while it's valid to re-examine Cold War structures, Trump's comment stokes curiosity over what Putin may have said to him about Montenegro during their secretive two-hour meeting. Montenegro charges Russia was  behind a coup attempt against its government in 2016.

Nuts and dolts

Crazy, stupid, mean. That's the gist of Trump's nose-thumbing via Twitter at those who found him too passive with Putin.

"So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki." (In this instance, he apparently meant "intelligence" as in "stable genius," not those in national security keeping watch on America's enemies.)

Trump went on: "We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match." Another tweet said critics "would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!"

What a self-deal

Could Trump be seriously considering Putin's mind-bending tat-for-tat proposal that — in return for offering Russian investigators to the Russia investigation — Trump would allow their comrades to question U.S.-born financier and anti-corruption advocate Bill Browder as well as former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul?

Sanders said Trump found the idea "interesting," but "didn’t commit to anything” and would "work with his team" to consider it. But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the concept "absolutely absurd." And Trump has lamented that his nemesis Robert Mueller "probably" wouldn't go for Putin's "incredible offer."

Browder — who lives in Britain, is a citizen there and isn't under U.S. jurisdiction — became a Putin target for persuading the U.S. Congress to pass sanctions against Russia for human rights violations. Nauert noted U.S. courts already rejected Russia's allegations against him. As for McFaul, who is a persistent Putin critic, the notion of unilaterally surrendering an American's diplomatic immunity didn't sit well at Foggy Bottom.

Ho-hum, a Thursday tantrum

Trump railed at the European Union for imposing a massive fine on Google. "I told you so!" he tweeted. "The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!” But his threat a day earlier of "tremendous retribution" for allegedly taking advantage of the United States may be hollow as usual, depending on what Trump actually can or will do. The fine was imposed for Google's alleged anti-trust maneuvers. So far it fits the pattern of reacting loudly to a big news item at a time of embarrassment for the administration. 

What else is happening:

  • Tuesday was the fourth anniversary of the shootdown of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, which killed 298 people. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the State Department issued a statement calling on Russia to admit its complicity. This year, a statement was drafted but not released, Foreign Policy magazine reported.
  • A GOP congressman from Illinois, Rep. Peter Roskam, said he told Trump Tuesday how 1980s Soviet dissidents took heart when President Ronald Reagan called the USSR an "evil empire," and that the world needed to hear a similarly strong voice with Putin. Trump got "very defensive" and said "today is more complicated," Roskam told Roll Call.
  • Sanders said "we're looking at it" when asked about the recent arrest of accused Russian agent Maria Butina, who allegedly parlayed contacts with gun groups and conservative organizations "to "penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus." Butina also had encounters with Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and tried to broker a Trump-Putin meeting during the campaign, court papers said.
  • Some Democrats in Congress want to question the U.S. interpreter who was the only other American in the room when Trump met Putin one-on-one to find out what happened. Republicans said no.
  • Former FBI Director and former Republican James Comey tweeted an appeal for voters to support Democrats in November's midterm elections because the GOP-controlled Congress has failed to act as a check on Trump.
  • Some Democrats cried "treason" over Trump's performance with Putin, but party leaders are leery of going that far, fearing it will alienate swing voters who don't like over-the-top rhetoric, The Associated Press reported.

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