President Donald J. Trump speaks during a listening session on domestic and international human trafficking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 23 February 2017. 
Olivier Douliery / POOL

Trump desperately tries to move the Russia scandal’s goalposts

Updated
This week, a small army of pundits declared that Donald Trump is suddenly a new president. He’s “pivoted,” we were told. He’s hit the “reset” button. He’s using his “inside voice” and proving that he’s learned how to be “presidential.”

That lasted two whole days.

This morning, after having said very little via Twitter all week, Trump declared, “It is so pathetic that the Dems have still not approved my full Cabinet.” As a factual matter, that didn’t make any sense.

This afternoon, apropos of nothing, the president, sounding an awful lot like his usual self, published a tweet with an old photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin eating a donut with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Trump wrote:
“We should start an immediate investigation into [Schumer] and his ties to Russia and Putin. A total hypocrite!”
Trump apparently saw the picture on a weird right-wing blog that routinely publishes ridiculous content.

On the surface, the overly defensive tweet is evidence that the short-lived “pivot” is over: Presidential Trump has devolved back into Petulant Trump. What’s more, in the American tradition, when a sitting president has declared, “We should start an immediate investigation into ___” it generally meant the start of an actual federal probe into serious and credible allegations. In the Trump era, it’s seen as a silly leader blowing off steam.

But below the surface, there’s a broader significance to a tweet like this. It tells us that months into the Russia scandal, the president still doesn’t understand the nature of the controversy.

Since the basic details are apparently the source of some confusion, let’s make this plain: having a meeting with the president of Russia, or a member of his government, is not itself problematic. The fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, met with a Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign is not what prompted yesterday’s controversy.

The problem is that Sessions, like others on Team Trump, made public claims about communications with Russian officials that weren’t true. Instead of making a good-faith effort to defend the deceptions, or constructively addressing the unanswered questions surrounding the scandal, Trump is tweeting a 14-year-old photograph he saw on an odd website and calling for an investigation of a senator who’s done nothing wrong.

In other words, confronted with evidence that his attorney general lied to Congress, Trump apparently thought he could push back by showing Putin having a donut in 2003 with a Senate Democrat. As responses go, it’s genuinely pitiful.

At least in this country, presidents aren’t supposed to conduct themselves this way.

Plenty of Democrats and Republicans in Congress have spoken with officials from plenty of countries. This is evidence of … nothing. What matters is the context: were the communications disclosed? Were they legal? Did they have a legitimate official purpose? Did the policymakers tell the truth about the contacts?

Were the communications with a foreign adversary that launched an illegal espionage operation inside the United States to affect the outcome of an American election?

As of this afternoon, Trump seems baffled by the basics of the Russia scandal. To use a word I know the president will appreciate, that’s just sad.

Postscript: Schumer published a tweet of his own this afternoon, saying he’s happy to discuss his contacts with Russian officials, publicly and under oath. The Democratic leader asked, “Would you and your team” do the same? As best as I can tell, the White House hasn’t answered.

Chuck Schumer, Donald Trump, Russia and Scandals

Trump desperately tries to move the Russia scandal's goalposts

Updated