Maybe it was the FBI’s fault for unnerving him. Or maybe the White House staff had left President Trump ill-prepared before his stunning remarks in Helsinki on Monday, when he sided with Russia over his own intelligence agencies.
At a bar in central Pennsylvania, voters wondered if election meddling was really so terrible. At a mall in Arizona, they insisted that Trump had actually been quite tough on Russia until, well, whatever that was in Finland.
In interviews with conservatives and Trump supporters across a half-dozen states, there were many theories about the president’s performance — he was tougher in private; he is cutting a megadeal; he has a plan — and more than a few questions about his news conference with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which left congressional Republicans and at least some voters struggling to stand by their leader.
“You’re essentially putting Russia first,” said Chris Ford, 26, a Republican in Dallas, tweaking a president who already had only his “lukewarm” support, as of this week. “It’s hard to see how that’s putting America first.”
It is by now the signal political cliché of the Trump age that his most dedicated admirers will probably never abandon him. The most telling aside of Trump’s 2016 candidacy — that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and retain his support — has given way to a presidency that has broadly proved him right, through trade wars and adult film stars, praise for foreign dictators, and excuses for white supremacists.
But even by Trump’s extraordinary standards, the summit has supplied a singular test case, compelling voters to reckon with the consequences when a president agrees with a foreign adversary over his own intelligence agencies on the grandest stage.
On Tuesday afternoon, amid a stream of criticism from lawmakers, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying that he supports America’s intelligence agencies and believes their conclusions about Russia, and that his statements in Helsinki had been misunderstood because he used a “double negative.”
Voters seemed to prefer Trump’s revised version of events.
“We should stand our ground,” said Jimmy Treece, a retired construction worker and Trump supporter waiting for a bus in Carlisle, Pa. “There is clearly something wrong here.”
Russia, Treece said, was plainly “guilty of something.” But he hastened to add this: He hopes whichever candidates win in November will stand by the president, as he plans to.
So it went in interviews with Republican voters across the country on Monday and Tuesday, most of them devoted to the president’s policies generally. They quickly sorted themselves into two camps: those who winced at the episode, or at least questioned it, and those who continued to defend Trump without hesitation.
If history is a guide — and polling, too — the second group is significantly larger within the party. And for Trump’s true loyalists, the Helsinki meeting and its aftermath have once more inspired a sense of fury and grievance on his behalf. Increasingly, these voters have absorbed Trump’s every viewpoint, his scapegoats, even his language tics as their own.
Several people said that Trump was only hoping to ratchet down tensions with a nuclear power, as they believe he did with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. His defense of Russia, they suggested, was strategic, even winking — part of a long game that most could not yet understand.
“No one really thinks it’s a true friendship,” said Dan Coleman, a computer software salesman in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But if the alternative is heightened nuclear activity and potential war, I would take a soft-pedal friendship over that.”
Many lawmakers were eager to create distance, even as they often strained to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.