President Trump is a man who contains multitudes, and sometimes those multitudes seem to all come out at once.
On Thursday, it happened with the whole Western world watching.
During his closing news conference at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump was all over the place. He seemed to take a gleeful victory lap, claiming that other countries had agreed to up their commitments to the organization in response to his saber-rattling. “If you ask Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg, he gives me total credit,” Trump assured, even as it wasn’t immediately clear the countries had done much besides recommit to the previously existing goal of 2 percent of their respective GDPs.
But when the subject turned to his upcoming Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin and whether Trump would press the Russian president on 2016 election meddling, things changed. Trump dismissively referred to it as the media’s “favorite question” and suggested he couldn’t do much besides ask it. “He may deny it,” Trump said of Putin. “All I can do is say ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’”
The man who just claimed credit for holding a gun to NATO’s head and winning concessions was suddenly no longer so potent. The world’s great negotiator suddenly had no card to play.
And in fact, Trump didn’t just suggest he couldn’t do anything to force the issue with Putin; he even seemed to acknowledge the possibility of concessions to Russia. He suggested it was possible that the United States might soon recognize Crimea as Russian territory, despite Russia having annexed it from Ukraine. (The Trump administration has hinted this was at least a possibility in recent weeks.)
Trump wound up submitting to something he has eschewed on U.S. soil: an extensive news conference. He began calling upon foreign reporters who asked him questions about the issues most pertinent to their countries — nevermind that he didn’t seem to have a base-level understanding of some of them. Trump was asked about whether he would continue supporting the Kurds in Iraq. He said only that they were “great people.” He was asked about Georgia’s bid to join NATO and said it wasn’t happening yet, despite Stoltenberg’s promise that it would. A Tunisian reporter asked Trump about Middle East peace, and Trump assured, “We’re looking for peace, and Africa is on our very strong list.” He began talking about the poor state of affairs on the broader African continent, rather than in the Middle East.
Trump even decided to (jokingly?) reiterate his claim to being a “stable genius.”
None of it was unprecedented. Trump has demonstrated all of these tendencies before — including suggesting his hands are tied on pressing Putin. But Trump seemed to be anxious to do a victory lap after his antics this week, and that meant the world got to see the Full Trump at a news conference in a way we haven’t seen in some time.
The contradiction between a man anxious to wreck shop in the Western world and the shrinking violet that was about to meet Putin was striking.