Daily Intelligencer Politics Chat: Fiasco in Finland

President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin arrive to waiting media during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Chris McGrath

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I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m talking with three members of New York’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz — about Trump’s bizarre, disastrous press conference with Putin.

Ezekiel: So I thought a lot about what my first question should be about this Trump–Putin presser, and I think we should start here: what on earth?

Ed: Yeah. Events like this are almost always pre-wired to create no real news. Not this one.

Jon: I think I did my first-ever “oh my God” tweet during it.

Ed: Back during the Cold War, I once had a nightmare in which an obviously drunken Brezhnev appeared on global TV wearing a party hat and announcing an imminent nuclear strike on a supine USA. This wasn’t that bad, but was still pretty bad.

Eric: What really made it was the way Trump’s opening, pre-scripted remarks created the expectation that his heresy was going to be executed with some subtlety or cleverness. The whole “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than risk peace in pursuit of politics” shtick. And then the questions start, and every word out of his mouth is fodder for tweeting “pee tape” memes.

Jon: I made this point in my piece — he IS taking a political risk. But doesn’t that enhance the suspicion? Trump is all about politics. If it were President Rand Paul, you’d say, of course he is taking a risk, he cares about his kooky beliefs.

Eric: Yeah — I think that rhetoric sounds good or has potential superficial appeal. But the actual fact that Trump is legitimately subordinating politics to principle with respect to Russia is damning.

Ed: The timing is just bizarre: Here we are on the brink of a critical midterm election, when Trump ought to be focusing attention on the economy and the Kavanaugh thing. And instead, we have this totally unforced error. That simply attracts more attention to the worst fears about him. To make a point I suspect we’d all agree on, when you add this entire trip up, Trump appears to be trying to pull off a strategic repositioning of the U.S. that’s in line with his past rhetoric, but that I’m guessing not 2 percent of MAGA people were prepared to embrace. And it puts GOP unity to a real stress test at the worst possible moment.

Eric: I think Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot NATO’s secretary general and have more than 2 percent of MAGA people readily embrace it.

Ed: Okay, don’t take me literally on that, but it’s not in his wheelhouse. This is the sort of thing he should have done, if he did it at all, during a second term.

Eric: Yeah, both Trump and his party need to win more than the diehards, and this is obviously not going to win them votes with anyone. Hadn’t thought about Kavanaugh. But it does seem like it’ll help Democrats make his opinions on presidential immunity into a thing.

Jon: David French called this the foreign-policy equivalent of Charlottesville. That had a (temporary) impact on the polls, right?

Ed: Well, as I suggested in the take I wrote a bit earlier, it’s the optics of this that are potentially most disastrous: How much weaker could Trump have possibly looked?

Ezekiel: I think the reaction of Republicans and conservative media will help shape what the polling reaction is — but will any effect last until the midterms?

Ed: Regarding the midterms, it depends on some other variables, including the scary possibility that after this abject display of submission, Trump feels the need to show strength. This is indeed a threat to arguably one of the most important political developments of the last year: the total fusion of Trumpism with the conservative wing of the GOP.

Eric: Yeah, how Trump responds now will be revealing. The man does not like getting this kind of press.

Ed: I joked earlier that Trump’s next move would be to attend Warsaw Pact maneuvers. My first impulse was to suggest that this all shows the power of the Bannon wing of Trumpworld. It’s the timing that is most mystifying, though.

Eric: If he persists amid…

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