Another Trump flip-flop
WASHINGTON — Days after President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to come here in the fall, thus creating another domestic uproar, our impetuous and changeable leader was obliged to report his new best friend wouldn’t be coming then after all.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, explained the postponement, saying, “The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after he first of the year.”
The obvious reference was to the ongoing investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which Trump until recently had flatly disavowed.
At the Helsinki summit, Trump said he didn’t “see any reason why it should be” Russia that hacked Democratic Party computers, stole strategic information and leaked damaging emails. A day later, Trump said he had “misspoken,” having meant to say he saw no reason why Russia “wouldn’t be” involved.
It was a lame and even preposterous effort to counter the wide public outrage that Trump failed to confront Putin directly when he had the chance in Finland. In finally saying he accepted the finding of the American intelligence community of such meddling, Trump finds himself bent into a pretzel attempting to maintain his fawning relationship with Putin.
In now blaming the postponement of the second summit on the Mueller inquiry, Trump is grabbing a convenient straw on the uncertain premise that it will be concluded early next year. Mueller is on his own clock and remains thorough in his process.
Putin, far from being disturbed or angered over the delay, invited Trump to Moscow on Friday. He said that the “internal political situation in the United States” would not interfere with “contacts” between him and Trump.
The Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both indicated no plan to have Putin address a joint session of Congress or even visit Capitol Hill, as routine protocol often provides for major foreign leaders.
In the current tense public atmosphere in which Trump encountered a mock Baby Trump balloon floating over London during his recent visit there, it seemed quite likely similar street protests would have greeted Putin here, had his visit gone forward as Trump planned. Indeed, it might well happen if it occurs later.
Before the president felt it necessary to postpone the Russian leader’s visit, certain patterns had emerged in Trump’s diplomatic efforts: a penchant to crow about successes before any evidence emerged to support such claims, along with a tendency to go off script and keep advisers in the dark.
Such was the case in his purported achievement in averting the threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. His glowing report of a breakthrough in the staged Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was followed only by more words and no sign of a substantial diplomatic or military result, for all the smiles and hand-shaking.
The curtain then drawn around the subsequent Helsinki summit left not only the American public but also Trump cabinet members in the dark about what had occurred.
More recently, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was caught on camera expressing surprise and astonishment when told by NBC interviewer Andrea Mitchell that Trump had invited Putin to Washington.
Shades of Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz, telling Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.