It was approaching mid-morning Tuesday, and Donald Trump’s team had one choice: He had to clean up the mess he had left for them following his disastrous press conference abroad. If they had to beg, so be it.
It was a colossal blunder that many officials on Team Trump were deeply aggravated by, if not furious over, though few would do much to confront their mercurial, notoriously stubborn boss.
“[The president] is usually a shoot-from-the-hip and talk from the top of his head kind of guy,” said a senior Trump administration official who works on issues surrounding Russian disinformation efforts. “I think he was more truthful yesterday than today and is capitulating to an angry caucus.” But, the official predicted, “people aren’t going to forget about this. It will be in the top-three worst moments of his presidency.”
The frenzy began Monday afternoon, as President Trump’s staff was already in full-throttle damage-control mode, gaming out well into the next day how the president and his team would patch things up after the fiasco in Helsinki.
According to two people familiar with the day’s events, the president was still absorbing well into Tuesday much of the brutal coverage and commentators’ assessments of the Trump-Putin joint press conference and was visibly annoyed at the near-uniformity of stunningly negative media reactions to his performance.
He stewed and dug in his heels for hours, resenting that he was widely portrayed as “weak” and having been “played” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he wasn’t getting the kudos he felt he deserved.
Even some of his favorites on Fox News, often such a reliable pro-Trump partner, had panned him.
“Hint: Don’t use ‘strong and powerful’ to describe Putin’s denial re. election meddling,” Laura Ingraham—a Fox News host and top Trump ally who even interviewed during the presidential transition to be his White House press secretary—tweeted on Monday. “Use words ‘predictable and damaging to US-Russian relations’ to describe Russian meddling.”
On her show that evening, she underscored such criticism of Trump’s approach, as did her guest Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump surrogate and American Conservative Union chairman, who said, diplomatically, that the president “had some errant answers... [some of which] uncoupled from his own tough policy.”
And it was hardly the only sub-glowing critique from Trump-aligned media personalities in the wake of the press conference. And the trend has gotten under the president’s skin, as bad press so often does.
“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!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning.
Still, the president’s senior ranks were busy into Tuesday afternoon doing damage-control and counseling Trump to do the same. It all culminated in the drafting of a carefully scripted walk-back, to be delivered by the president on Tuesday afternoon, in front of reporters and TV cameras.
As is typical with this president, he still could not help himself from ad-libbing and going off-message by walking back key parts of his West Wing’s stage-managed walk-back.
Trump spoke from the White House Cabinet room, reading from prepared remarks that included a handwritten—and misspelled—note in the margins: “THERE WAS NO COLUSION.”
“I have full faith in our intelligence agencies,” Trump stated. “I accept our intelligence community conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”
The president said he’d misspoken Monday, when, at the Helsinki presser with Putin, he once again cast doubt on the findings of his own intelligence officials’ conclusions. “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russian government actors who hacked the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, he had said.
“The sentence should’ve been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’” Trump tried spinning on Tuesday. “Sort of a double negative,” he said, at least somewhat self-aware.
It was the crisis-comms equivalent of snapping his fingers in front of a press pool and suddenly declaring Monday “Opposite Day.”
Following the president’s remarks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told The Daily Beast that she had “nothing to add” to his statements. “As always, they are the president[’s] words,” she wrote back, after being asked who was responsible for drafting the prepared remarks.
Still, someone appeared to have made some notable last-minute edits to those words, such as crossing out a sentence fragment in his remarks that read, “Anyone involved in that meddling to justice,” [sic] according to a photo of the remarks posted by The New York Times.
Those remarks also do not appear to contain a qualifier that Trump added after his public concession that Russia did, in fact, seek to sway the 2016 election. “It could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there,” Trump said, in an apparent departure from the prepared version of his comments.
And it was a departure made by a man caught between the demands of the self-inflicted public-relations catastrophe of the moment and his instinct never to back down and never to give the adversarial press and his political enemies a scalp.
Sure enough, following Trump’s attempt at repairing the political damage caused by his conduct overseas, cable news lit up with talking heads and journalists weighing in on how the president who brands himself the ultimate counterpuncher had just been forced into a corner and forced to back down, at least superficially.
By Tuesday evening, as Trump retreated to the residence, it became increasingly clear that—even after participating in a painfully staged attempt at clarification from the White House—he would not be getting the credit and plaudits from the media to which he feels entitled.
“[He’s] going to hate this,” a West Wing official bluntly assessed Tuesday afternoon, predicting yet more fuming and rage-tweeting over this in the coming days, if not hours.
Sure enough, at 8:21 p.m. ET, Trump tweeted, “The meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!”