Witcover: Higher stakes now for Trump, and the country

As the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election continues to plague President Donald Trump, he has created an even more perilous development for himself in the shocking aftermath of his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin.

His astounding announcement that he has invited Mr. Putin to Washington caps a week of convulsion and surrender, raising serious questions about Mr. Trump's own grasp of political reality and his presidential responsibilities.

After first refusing to accept the U.S. Intelligence community's in-depth evidence of such Russian involvement and then clumsily backtracking, Mr. Trump is left in further awkward and embarrassing retreat. He is now reluctantly defending his own spymasters' findings that Russia subverted the American elections, while trying desperately to salvage his aspirations for new U.S.-Russian collaboration.

Through all this, the president repeatedly claims there was "no collusion" between his winning campaign and Moscow. He tries to paper over his previous denunciations of the U.S. intelligence apparatus by blaming past intelligence leaders who gathered the damning evidence. Now he praises the current CIA director, former Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, who nevertheless openly agrees with the intelligence community's findings.

Equally troubling was Mr. Trump's welcoming of Mr. Putin's bizarre proposal to invite Russian military intelligence officers to examine and question the U.S. officials who brought the allegations of meddling. The notion was so preposterous that a State Department official dismissed it out of hand.

Such diplomatic gaffes have underscored the general state of disarray within an administration devoid of any normal bureaucratic guidelines. It is subject to the whims and ad hoc observations of a president adrift in a sea of his own contradictions and bold-faced lies.

Mr. Trump also continues to poison the free flow of information gathered by a professional and dedicated corps of mainstream journalists with his peddling of "fake news" — accounts manufactured out of his own imagination and distortions of what actually has occurred or said by other public figures.

At the Helsinki summit, Mr. Trump was handed a great opportunity to practice his craft of misinformation. There was no institutional framework for the meeting: no committees or other vehicles in which to examine areas of agreement or disagreement by recognized experts on each side.

The one-day affair provided for no in-depth examination of a detailed agenda of issues or even areas of contention between the two featured players. It was pure mano-a-mano, pitting Mr. Trump against Mr. Putin on a single stage in a global spotlight between two self-professed political strongmen.

But unlike a heavyweight boxing championship or a formal debate, there was no public face-off or exchange. Instead, the two men met head-to-head in a private séance witnessed by none but their translators, tasked only with conveying what each man said to the other in his own language.

There was no transcription or recording of what was said by each of them — at least none released afterward — by which observers could weigh and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their performances, either in style or substance.

It remained for each of the principals to make the case for himself in the news conference that followed, as they stood at separate microphones. Journalists from Western news organizations, including the Associated Press and Reuters, and Russian outlets posed fairly unbiased questions.

Mr. Putin, with his customary swagger, cruised through with a controlled and unconfrontational performance. He even offering a conciliatory if ludicrous arrangement whereby Russian and U.S. intel officials could jointly examine the allegations of Russian meddling.

The stage was set for Mr. Trump to turn to Mr. Putin and demand directly that he admit the charge or face consequences of an outraged America. Instead, the American president rolled over. He let Mr. Putin off the hook and thus made a mockery of Mr. Trump's own self-constructed image as the tough guy and master of the art of the deal.

There could have been no clearer example of political self-immolation in the recent annals of world political history. The issues now are: Can Donald Trump recover and save his presidency? And can the Republican Party and/or Congress somehow impede his mindless course of appeasement?

Sadly, Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938, and his "peace for our time" declaration, readily come to mind.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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