WASHINGTON — One aspect of what’s made Donald Trump’s presidency so jarring, so chaotic and often so confusing has been the two parallel administrations — what Trump says, and then what everyone else in his administration says.
Consider these examples when it comes to Trump’s controversial meeting Monday with Vladimir Putin:
On interference in the 2016 election
Trump: “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said on Monday in Helsinki.
FBI Director Christopher Wray: "My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt at the Aspen Security Forum.
On whether Russia is still targeting the United States
Trump: “No.” (The White House says this “no” from yesterday was in response to no more questions. But the reporters in the room said it was clear the “no” was addressing the question of whether Russia is still targeting the U.S.)
DNI Director Dan Coats: “I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again. Today the digital infrastructure is literally under attack,” he said on Friday. (NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Coats later today.)
On Putin’s offer for Mueller’s team to interview the indicted 12 Russians in return for the questioning of Americans and U.S. residents who Russia believes have committed illegal actions
Trump: “I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said in Helsinki on Monday.
Wray: "It’s not high on our list of investigative techniques,” he told NBC’s Holt, per our colleague Mike Memoli.
On the state of U.S.-Russia relations
Trump: “I hold both countries responsible,” the president said on Monday. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.”
Ambassador Jon Huntsman: “I think the bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did, their malign activity throughout Europe as well. That's a part of the conversation that needs to take place,” he said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday.
On the Mueller probe
Trump: “I think that the probe is a disaster for our country… [T]hat was a total witch hunt.”
Wray: "I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt. I think it's a professional investigation conducted by a man that I've known to be a straight shooter."
When observers ask why figures like Coats and Huntsman won’t resign after Trump’s performance on Monday, you have your answer: Despite whatever Trump says, these officials get to operate in a parallel administration — as if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were president.
Indeed, this is something that NBC’s Benjy Sarlin observed during the 2016 campaign: Then-running mate Mike Pence was allowed to operate in a parallel universe: He released a statement praising the Khan family; he denounced name-calling; he acknowledged Barack Obama’s birthplace before Trump did; and he released his tax returns.
So if it worked in 2016, we guess it can work in a presidency — at least when it comes to administration officials having to answer tough questions. But it certainly undercuts an administration’s credibility for a president to say one thing and everyone else to say the opposite.
Washington Post: Russians describe “verbal agreements” at Helsinki summit
Another problem with these two parallel presidencies is what happens when the president is in a room by himself — without his top aides. Well, here’s the Washington Post: “‘Important verbal agreements’ were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements, major bilateral arms control treaties whose futures have been in question. Antonov also said that Putin had made ‘specific and interesting proposals to Washington’ on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.”
“But officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military, scrambling since Monday to determine what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues in Helsinki, had little to no information Wednesday. At the Pentagon, as press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications. The uncertainty surrounding Moscow's suggestion of some sort of new arrangement or proposal regarding Syria, in particular, was striking because Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, is scheduled to brief reporters on Syria and other matters Thursday.”
NYT: U.S. intelligence officials told Trump that Russia interfered in election on Jan. 6, 2017
“Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election,” the New York Times writes. “The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.”
“Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed.”
Trump endorses Brian Kemp in the GOP’s GA-GOV runoff
NBC’s Ben Kamisar: “President Trump threw his weight behind Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in next week's gubernatorial primary runoff, a move that injects the president into the center of an ugly primary battle. Trump tweeted his endorsement of Kemp Wednesday afternoon, describing him as "tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration," similar language he's used to endorse other GOP candidates this cycle.”
“There isn't much of an ideological difference between the two GOP candidates, making Trump's endorsement a notable one. It also puts him at odds with current Gov. Nathan Deal, who has backed Cagle. The final days of the race have been dominated by leaked audio in which Cagle described the primary as a contest to see ‘who has the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest.’”