“This Was the Nightmare Scenario”: The West Wing Revolts After Trump Embraces Putin

As Trump grappled with his error, Chief of Staff John Kelly went into overdrive to get Trump to walk it back.
Kelly photographed on the White House grounds, June 28, 2018.
By Andrew Harrer/Getty Images.

As he flew home from Helsinki on Air Force One following his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump reacted with surprise at the horror and outrage that was being expressed by much of the American political world. By the time he landed, the surprise had turned to anger. “He was enraged there was a lack of people out there defending him,” one Republican close to the White House told me. The mood among West Wing advisers was downright funereal. “This was the nightmare scenario,” another Republican in frequent contact with the administration said.

Trump had weathered epic crises of his own making before, from the Access Hollywood tape to Charlottesville to “shithole countries.” Each time he survived withering criticism by doubling down and counterattacking. But as he woke up Tuesday morning, Trump had to recognize that his embrace of Putin on the world stage was a crisis of a different magnitude, and he personally stepped in to try to manage the fallout.

While National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to a source, thought Trump’s remarks were ill-advised, he believed that walking them back would only add fuel to the outrage pyre and make the president look weak. But Chief of Staff John Kelly was irate. According to a source, he told Trump it would make things worse for him with Robert Mueller. He also exerted pressure to try to get the president to walk back his remarks. According to three sources familiar with the situation, Kelly called around to Republicans on Capitol Hill and gave them the go-ahead to speak out against Trump. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan held televised press conferences to assert that Russia did meddle in the election.

Trump was boxed in. With seemingly only Rand Paul, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson in his corner, Trump decided to backtrack. Appearing before reporters this afternoon, Trump blamed his comments on a grammatical mistake. “I would like to clarify, in a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” he said, reading from a statement. “The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’”

To those who know Trump best, the 24-hour reversal is a sign that he’s unnerved by the intensity of the backlash he provoked. “The president sent a very clear message [that] his worldview is in sync with his base and members of his party,” former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller told me. “Any of these other kerfuffles, if he had addressed it the next day, we wouldn’t have had that many days of things like s-hole countries.”

96 total views, 3 views today