The method to Trump’s walkbacks

19 Jul



by David Leonhard –

It’s become a pattern: President Trump says something outrageous. He later grudgingly retracts his statement, or members of his administration retract it on his behalf. And then he quickly undermines the retraction.
It happened with the attacks by white supremacists in Charlottesville and with other race-baiting issues. This week alone, the pattern has been visible multiple times, on Russia and NATO.
So what explains it? What could Trump possibly be accomplishing with this blatant dissembling?
Something important and devious, actually. He is sending two different messages, each intended for a different audience.
With the initial statement, he’s talking to his primary audience. Often, that audience is his political base, and Trump is signaling that he’s with them: He, too, is a white nationalist, or at the very least he’s sympathetic to them. He believes that dark-skinned people live in miserable countries, that Mexicans are rapists, that Muslims should be banned from America and that some white supremacists are “very fine people.”
Over the past week, for whatever reason, Trump’s primary audience has seemed to be Vladimir Putin. Trump repeatedly sent messages that Putin must have liked — that NATO is a mess, that Russia didn’t interfere in the election and that the Trump administration would consider handing over an American citizen to Putin’s government for questioning.
And then, in short order, come Trump’s walkbacks. They’ve been especially lame this week. Trump claimed that he meant “wouldn’t” in Helsinki when he said “would,” and his press secretary claimed yesterday that he didn’t mean “No” when he answered a question with “No.”
But I think it’s crucial to understand the value that these walkbalks have to Trump. Almost no matter how silly they are, much of the media coverage tends to treat the walkbacks as serious. Look at many of the headlines on Tuesday. They took Trump’s Helsinki retraction at face value, even though Trump undermined it during the very same news conference at which he offered it.
The walkbacks — and the credulous repetition of them — allow Trump’s fellow Republicans to pretend that he never really meant the initial statements. Marco Rubio, Rob Portman and other congressional Republicans played along in precisely this way over the past few days. The Republicans then act as if they don’t really need to hold Trump accountable — for his betrayal of American interests, for his bizarre Putin affinity, for his racism or for any number of other issues — because Trump cleaned up his own mess.
The pattern reaches its final stage when Trump offers the final wink-wink. He again offers some kind words about white supremacists or some nasty comments about people with dark skin. Or he again suggests that maybe some random hacker was responsible for the 2016 cyberattacks.
At this point, Trump’s thinking is clear to anybody who’s honestly trying to understand it. And his fellow Republicans in Congress keep on enabling his behavior by looking the other way.
As the old saying goes: Fool me once …
Elsewhere. “The President’s job is to protect us, not to even *consider* handing any of us over to an enemy government,” Tom Nichols says on Twitter, of Putin’s request to question Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, and Bill Browder, a British businessman. “If Putin can single out @mcfaul, he can single out anyone.”
Nada Bakos, who was a C.I.A. analyst under both George W. Bush and Obama, described as “unbelievable” the remarks by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, about the potential questioning. “What’s next,” she asks, “turning me over to al Qaida for questioning?”
Moscow has targeted McFaul before. Politico Magazine recently excerpted his book about his time as ambassador, in which he described how “Russian authorities conducted a ground campaign of harassment against my colleagues at the embassy, myself and, from time to time, even my family.” As he said on Twitter yesterday, “Putin has been harassing me for a long time. That he now wants to arrest me, however, takes it to a new level.”
Why is Putin doing this? Nancy LeTourneau argues in The Washington Monthly that “he’s launching the most blatant kind of bothersiderism via conspiracy theory. In other words, Mueller may have indicted people like Manafort, but we’ve got Browder and McFaul.
The full Opinion report from The Times follows, including Carmel McCoubrey on Trump’s grammatical pretzel.

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