ended a turbulent week by shrugging off criticism of his dealings with Russia, his use of tariffs to influence trade and his public scolding of the Fed.
Instead, frustrated by being told what he can’t do, he dug in on all three fronts.
“All he’s hearing in D.C. is ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ He can’t criticize the Fed, he can’t criticize the intelligence community,” said a person close to the president, echoing others in Mr. Trump’s orbit. “He’s obviously going to get frustrated by the can’t-do mentality.”
Mr. Trump has spent much of the four days since Monday’s summit with
seeking to reverse or otherwise soften his comments at the news conference with the Russian leader, in which he appeared to side with Moscow over his own intelligence agencies about whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Yet on Wednesday, he ordered a top aide to invite Mr. Putin to visit Washington this fall—around the same time as the congressional midterm elections in which U.S. intelligence agencies say Moscow is actively trying to interfere.
The conflicting messages out of the White House underscore Mr. Trump’s increasingly defiant approach in the wake of his own perceived missteps: In the face of criticism, persist.
“The president doesn’t respect norms,” the person close to him said. “Norms are rules written by somebody else.”
Mr. Trump also this week ignored criticism on his conduct on trade and monetary-policy issues. On Friday, he escalated his criticism of the Federal Reserve, saying in a tweet that its efforts to raise short-term interest rates hurt the U.S. economic expansion, a day after he was chided by some for saying he hoped the central bank would stop raising interest rates.
His comments, which ricocheted through currency and bond markets on Thursday, departed from a convention in which presidents have refrained from speaking specifically on monetary policy. The White House raced to clarify his comments by saying he still respects the Fed’s independence.
Mr. Trump also threatened tariffs again on $500 billion in Chinese imports in the same week that
Sen. Orrin Hatch
(R., Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance panel and a longtime Trump ally, sent the White House a letter warning he would try to curtail presidential trade authority if Mr. Trump didn’t reverse course.
“I think he had the most challenging week of his presidency in terms of living up to his own expectations,” said Andy Card, who was chief of staff to GOP President
George W. Bush.
“I do think he’s come to recognize that it didn’t go the way he thought it would go.” But, Mr. Card added, “I’m not sure he likes learning the lessons he’s learned.”
Despite the criticism he has faced, Mr. Trump’s approval rating remains high among his base. Among registered GOP voters, 84% approve of his job performance, according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted July 13 to 17.
Mr. Trump’s actions on several major policy fronts also surprised top aides.
On Thursday, he directed national security adviser
to invite Mr. Putin to Washington, according to a National Security Council spokesman. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, was taken aback by the development when informed about it during a live interview that day. “Say that again?” Mr. Coats responded.
House Minority Leader
(D., Calif.) on Friday called the invitation “beyond belief,” adding: “Putin’s ongoing attacks on our elections and on Western democracies and his illegal actions in Crimea and the rest of Ukraine deserve the fierce, unanimous condemnation of the international community, not a VIP ticket to our nation’s capital.”
For much of the White House, Mr. Trump’s conduct at the news conference with Mr. Putin on Monday was wholly unexpected. Administration officials ahead of the summit had crafted a plan for Mr. Trump to confront Mr. Putin on Russia’s electoral interference, officials said.
Before the summit, Mr. Trump had authorized the Justice Department to release an indictment of 12 Russians who allegedly hacked into Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign, agreeing it would strengthen his hand when he raised the issue of election interference, a White House official said.
In preparatory meetings, Mr. Trump and his aides discussed using the indictment to forcefully make the case. The plan was for Mr. Trump to invoke the indictment both in private meetings and in the public news conference afterward, a White House official said. The idea, the official said, was to “shove it in Putin’s face and look strong doing it,” depicting it as hard evidence of Russian crimes against America’s electoral process.
“He did the exact opposite,” the official said. During the news conference, Mr. Trump appeared to side with Mr. Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies, saying he saw no reason why Russia would have interfered in the election. On Tuesday, he said he meant to say he saw no reason why Russia wouldn’t have interfered.
It’s unclear how hard Mr. Trump pressed the matter in his one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin, which itself sparked controversy amid the probe of Russian meddling. The White House has released scant details of the discussions.
“It was a well laid-out plan. Unfortunately, he didn’t execute on it,” the official said.
One reason Mr. Trump might have gone his own way and discarded the initial planning, a White House official said, is because he is seeking a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
Mr. Trump’s performance at the summit and afterward complicates plans for the midterm elections, a White House official said.
White House aides had begun preparations to make Mr. Trump the public face of planned efforts by the administration to stop election interference in the midterms. Mr. Trump would be shown presiding over meetings and making announcements about an administration-wide commitment to safeguard the 2018 elections. In the wake of the Putin summit, Mr. Trump may struggle to credibly make the case that he is spearheading the effort to protect U.S. election systems, the official said.
One reason Mr. Trump is reluctant to spotlight the issue of election interference, White House officials said, is he can’t separate it in his mind from the outcome of the 2016 election. Accepting that Russia interfered, as he sees it, devalues his victory and unfairly casts doubts on his legitimacy as president, the officials said.
“We won the Electoral College by a lot,” Mr. Trump declared at Monday’s news conference, responding to a question posed to Mr. Putin about why Americans should believe his denial that Moscow interfered in the election. “We did a great job.”
—Vivian Salama and Nick Timiraos contributed to this article.
Appeared in the July 21, 2018, print edition as ‘President Digs In Against Critics.’