With the stroke of a pen and the striking of seven words, the president told us everything we need to know about his intentions relative to the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. As a result, his effort on Tuesday to ameliorate the Helsinki mess he'd made standing with Vladimir Putin the day before only made matters worse.
Where to begin?
First, there was the timing. He had ample opportunity to clear up any discrepancy before leaving Finland on Monday, especially when he did interviews with two Fox News personalities after the meeting with Putin ended but before departing for home. Instead, there was no effort to say he'd misspoken before Air Force One took off, probably because he'd said exactly what he meant.
Second, the semantics of the "would" vs. "wouldn't" excuse ("The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia,' sort of a double negative," said the president) is belied by the totality of the context. That one sentence wasn't an outlier to Trump's words – to the contrary, it was in keeping with his overall presentation while addressing the media in Putin's presence. In fact, it would have been odd had he failed to stand up for U.S. intelligence while praising Putin's "extremely strong and powerful" denial, only to then say, "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia."
Third, even when scripted to try to convince the world that he really does recognize Russia's culpability, he could not resist going off script and pointing a finger elsewhere ("could be other people also"), a throwback to the first presidential debate, when he wondered whether the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server was the work of a 400-pound man.
All of that is convincing of his insincerity on Tuesday, but here is the kicker: It's what he refused to say that was spelled out in front of him. When the president welcomed the media into a meeting he was having with congressional leaders at the White House, he sat at a conference table with four pages of notes displayed in front of him. Of course, members of the media took pictures, including Tom Brenner of the New York Times, whose photographs captured Trump's scripted words, including his handwritten notations, allowing easy comparison between that which was intended and that which was delivered. A comparison of the two is remarkable.
On the top of Page Two, these words appeared:
"In saying — as I have said before — that I ACCEPT our intelligence community's conclusions about Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections."
The president read those words verbatim. Then he added what he'd written in his own hand:
"There was no collusion."
He then continued to follow the script.
"I thought I made that clear yesterday, but having just reviewed the transcript of yesterday's press conference, I realized that there is the need for further clarification. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word "WOULD" instead of "WOULDN'T." The sentence should have been: "I don't see any reason why it WOULDN'T be Russia"– a double negative.
I have on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections.
So far, so good. But then came this deletion:
Anyone involved in that meddling to justice.
Clearly, he was supposed to say, "Anyone involved in that meddling" either "will be" or "should be" brought to justice."
But he just couldn't do it. Probably because he doesn't believe it. His deviation from the script is an admission that he has no desire to see anyone involved in the meddling brought to justice. It's that simple.
The stricken words are a trial lawyer's dream, reminiscent of when the late prosecutor of Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi, once lamented that O.J. Simpson "made sufficiently incriminating statements in the [interview with police] alone to convict him" in his 1996 book, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder.
Assuming the president ever sits with special counsel Robert Mueller, Mueller could spend an afternoon questioning Trump on this deletion alone. For starters:
Did you strike those words, Mr. President?
Do you not believe those words, Mr. President?
Who did you have in mind when you struck those words, Mr. President?
To the extent it is proved that Russia meddled in our elections, would you not like to see those perpetrators brought to justice, Mr. President?