I can imagine President Trump, having just finished a marathon 2-hour press conference that was as a pyrotechnic display of an uncontrollable id, grabbing his hapless press secretary by the collar and growling, “Now that’s how you do a goddamn press conference.”
Trump really outdid himself in this one. It was meant to be a press conference simply announcing his new pick for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Acosta, to replace his first pick, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, who withdrew himself from consideration on Wednesday. Instead, he singlehandedly attempted to squash Tuesday night’s revelations—by The Failing New York Times and Fake News CNN—that multiple Trump campaign staff and associates were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials. They closely followed the resignation of Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was revealed to have discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration, a charge Flynn had repeatedly denied and, apparently, even lied to the Vice President about it. Worse yet, Trump knew since at least January 26 that Flynn, by publicly lying about the nature of the calls, had exposed himself to blackmail, yet did not immediately fire him or even exclude him from national security meetings.
Trump squashed nothing, instead attempting to replicate his 16-month presidential campaign method of pummeling the media with multiple red herring stories to distract from the ones that matter in a 2-hour format. It was symphonic. The livestream feed I was watching momentarily glided over Kellyanne Conway with a rapturous look in her eyes. The maestro was at work.
But ignoring all the specious dust Trump kicked up yields the two most important facts. First, he neither confirmed nor denied that his campaign staff was in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. Second, he denied ordering Flynn to talk to the Russians about sanctions, but he “would have directed him to do it.”
To defend himself regarding Flynn, Trump specifically cited Fox News’s Charles Krauthammer, who argued that Flynn was merely doing his job talking to Russia’s ambassador about sanctions. This argument conveniently ignores the context of that phone call. The Atlantic’s David Frum, a conservative himself, has kindly done the easy work of knocking down Trump’s defense:
Nobody would care if an incoming national security adviser had confidential conversations with an ambassador of a hostile foreign government before Inauguration Day, if it were believed that the conversations served a legitimate and disinterested public purpose. But that is exactly what is doubted in this case. [emphasis mine]
Trump said absolutely nothing to ease that doubt.
To defend himself regarding contact with Russians during the campaign, Trump denied that he had any contact with Russia and he added, “And I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.” (Since he did not release his taxes this can’t be proven false, but his own words and those of his son’s cast doubt.) The important thing, though, is that he neither confirmed nor denied members of his campaign were in contact with Russia. He merely said he watched his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others flatly deny any contact with Russians. (Brief aside: In case any further proof was needed, Trump also definitively proved that he watches an inordinate amount of television during working hours.)
Trump probably walked out feeling like he accomplished something. It was clear to any observer that he was fully enjoying the experience and it was entertaining in the way WWE once was. But the outlines of a criminal, treasonous conspiracy remain in place.