Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) listens while US President Donald Trump speaks before ahead of their meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018....
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Trump delays White House invitation that Vladimir Putin never accepted

— Updated

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's failed "summit" with Russia's Vladimir Putin, the American president faced broad criticism from across the political spectrum. Trump's antics in Helsinki led to awkward questions about his weakness, his loyalties, and whether he's been compromised by a foreign adversary.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 07/19/18 09:00PM
Trump subordination to Putin leaves administration guessing
The Republican responded to the denunciations by extending an invitation to the Russian leader to attend another meeting, this time at the White House in the fall. Trump neglected to give his own team a heads-up about any of this, as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats conceded.

Yesterday, in a surprise move, the president postponed the meeting.

President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said Wednesday that any meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be put off until 2019 because of special counsel Robert Mueller's "witch hunt."

"The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we've agreed that it will be after the first of the year," Bolton said in a statement that was notable for the senior adviser's use of the term "witch hunt" when discussing diplomatic matters.

It was a bit jarring to see an official White House statement use the ridiculous "witch hunt" phrase -- a stale cliché that's been discredited many times over -- but that's just the start of the concerns here.

Because by all appearances, yesterday's reversal appears to be the result of a significant mistake.

It started with an invitation to a White House meeting with no clear purpose, on the heels of a meeting in Helsinki that also had no clear purpose. The Kremlin soon followed, saying Putin hadn't yet agreed to accept the invitation. In fact, as recently as Tuesday, a Russian official told Reuters that there'd been no preparations in advance of a possible second meeting, adding that it might be preferable for the two to chat in December at the G-20 gather in Argentina.

Two days later, Trump effectively decided, "On second thought, maybe that meeting I just told everyone should happen isn't such a good idea after all."

Officially, the White House blamed Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation for the postponement, but there's no reason to accept this explanation at face value. After all, the probe was in full swing last week, when Trump met with Putin and extended an invitation for another get-together.

Isn't it more likely that the American president announced an upcoming meeting, only to discover his benefactor in Moscow -- who already got what he was looking for in Helsinki -- wasn't on board with the idea? That Putin simply didn't see the point of seeing Trump three times in five months?