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Commentary: Conservatives turn on Trump after Putin presser

Last Updated Jul 16, 2018 11:07 PM EDT

How bad was the reaction from the Right to the POTUS-Putin presser?  My tweet traffic from TrumpWorld fell so low I thought they'd all been dumped Twitter's recent purge. Instead of the usual celebrations and snark that accompany Trump's TV appearance, it was social-media silence from the #MAGA gang.

Even die-hard Trump supporters knew something had gone wrong.

If they flipped over to Fox News for comfort, they found Bret Baier describing some of President Trump's comments "a little bit bizarre." His colleague Brit Hume agreed, calling Trump's response to the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election "a vague and rambling non-answer," adding "Lame response, to say the least." Neil Cavuto called Trump's performance "disgusting."

And those were Trump's good reviews. The vast majority of reactions from Republican and the Right sounded more like this from Mark Dubowitz at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies: "That was the most disturbing press conference I've watched in my lifetime."

In a way, the past two weeks put a spotlight on the dilemma Trump supporters face. A week ago the conversation was about Judge Kavanaugh and the economy.  A number of anti-Trump activists I know confessed that they were re-thinking their opposition to the president -- not because they are any more comfortable with his character (if anything, they say, his behavior's actually worse than they feared) -- but because, as Noah Rothman of the conservative "Commentary Magazine" put it, "they find it's difficult not supporting an administration that has done so much they support. They [anti-Trump Republicans] face a tough decision in 2020."

Monday's press conference made that decision a whole lot easier.

It's too soon to tell, but it feels like the GOP ground has shifted away from Trump. There's no surprise when Sen. Ben Sasse calls President Trump's claim of moral equivalency between the Russians who attacked our election institutions and their American victims is "bizarre and flat-out wrong."

"He's giving Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs," Sasse said in a statement.

But when frequent Trump defenders like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Trey Gowdy call him out for his misstatements, that's a different story. House Speaker Paul Ryan has spent the past year trying avoid conflict with the president, but he felt the need to put out a statement refuting the president's claims.

"There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals," Ryan said. "The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Trump fans console themselves that their man has been in these messes before and always finds a way out. Any mere mortal politician would have been taken down by the revelations of his treatment of women back during the 2016 election, or the story of Stormy Daniels afterward. Not Trump. He was stronger than that.

But the "Trump's different" argument this time feels, well, different. Trump looked so weak, so wan, so out of his league next to Putin. Perhaps for the first time, the job of being president looked so much bigger than the person holding it. 

Trump's super-power is to get the media focused on something else. He's no doubt flexing his Twitter fingers at this very moment to spin out to another story -- NFL kneeling? MS-13? Elvis's Alien Grandchild?

Plus, there's Trump's actual record on Russia. Despite all the pillow talk with Putin, Trump has kept Obama-era sanctions in place, added new sanctions of his own, reversed Obama policies by giving offensive weapons to Ukraine and missile-defense systems to Poland, and allowed our military to wipe out a large group of Russian mercenaries fighting for Syria's Assad regime.

And don't underestimate the ability of the Democrats to take a strong hand and completely overplay it.  The issue of arresting illegal immigrant families at the border, for example, was buried under the far-Left push to completely #AbolishICE. Today's tweet from former CIA director John Brennan calling for Trump's press-conference performance an impeachable offense could wind up helping Trump by making his opponents appear more problematic than the president.

But it's also possible that the image of the American president, weak and unsteady, siding with a KGB thug over his own country, will have a lasting effect on this presidency.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.