Congratulations, Sebastian Gorka. Rarely has someone been proved so wrong, so fast.
Just before the Helsinki summit, the former White House adviser insisted that critics of President Trump would be proven wrong by a muscular performance from the president. In his op-ed at The Hill published just after noon on Monday, Gorka insisted that "there is most definitely a new sheriff in the White House," a "pragmatist who sees the world as it is." Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump would be the "right man to meet with and rein in" Vladimir Putin and impose order on the chaos he caused.
That prediction didn't age well.
Three hours later, the new sheriff looked more like Andy Devine in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than Gary Cooper in High Noon. Rather than rein in Putin, whom Gorka correctly described as "a deeply unsavory figure," Trump praised Putin as a "good competitor." Rather than being free from "a default setting that sees America as the cause of the world's ills," Trump went out of his way to make the U.S. responsible for Putin's hostile actions. In a tweet prior to the summit, Trump wrote, "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"
Trump went even farther during his presser with Putin. Despite multiple investigations (including by two congressional committees controlled by Republicans) concluding that Russia hacked the DNC and maliciously spread information in an attempt to disrupt and undermine the 2016 election, Trump suggested that Putin's denials carried equal weight as U.S. intelligence. "My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia," Trump interjected when a reporter challenged Putin on the issue. "I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
The new sheriff found a bipartisan posse waiting for him upon his return from Helsinki. Condemnations rained down on Trump from both sides of the aisle for denigrating the work of U.S. intelligence in order to praise Putin. Most notably, reliable allies launched public criticisms of his performance. Newt Gingrich, whose wife serves as Trump's ambassador to the Vatican, called it "the most serious mistake of his presidency," one that "must be corrected — immediately." The Wall Street Journal blasted it as "a personal and national embarrassment." Even on Fox News, the most friendly mainstream media outlet for the administration, most of the daytime hosts criticized the presser. "He was not the patriot he should have been," Fox Business Network's Trish Regan lamented.
Trump had little choice but to throw in the towel. The president reversed himself, claiming that he'd meant to say that "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia" that conducted a disruption campaign. That's still an odd thing to say, especially while arguing that Putin and his own intel resources had equivalent credibility, but a walkback is a walkback, no matter how stilted and unbelievable the details.
Trump added that he "accepted" the intelligence community's assessment of Russian interference, adding that there is still no evidence at all that his campaign colluded with Russian intelligence. Trump further insisted that he had "full faith and support" for U.S. intelligence, and that he would step up efforts to help them thwart any other disruption campaigns that might take place in the midterms.
It wasn't quite a mea culpa, but it was close.
So what should we make of Sheriff Trump? His diplomatic maneuvers over the last week — at NATO, in London, and now with Putin — indicate that Trump is a lot more comfortable confronting friends than malevolent and "unsavory" figures hostile to the U.S. Gorka was correct to write that America can ill afford not to engage with Russia, but this episode shows that Trump should leave that to deputies who are better prepared for those engagements, both for Trump's own sake and for the country's.
This should be Sheriff Trump's last foreign summit without extensive preparation and an important agreement ready to sign after being fully vetted first by seasoned professionals.
The outcome demonstrates something else, too — a limit to Trump's support on Capitol Hill and within his own party. This time, it was the Republican establishment who played sheriff and Trump that got his reins yanked back. That's a valuable lesson, one which puts more responsibility on the GOP to exercise those reins more vigorously in the future. To the extent that the sheriff keeps control and prevents chaos, the imposition of discipline will only help Trump in the long run.