WINDSOR CASTLE — The Range Rover inched slowly along the gravel path toward the castle, delivering President Donald Trump to the regal encounter he’d been anticipating for days: a meeting with the Queen of England strictly devoted to pomp and circumstance, a refreshing break for Trump from days of tense arguments about NATO budgets.
But as the honor guard performed the national anthem and gave Trump a royal salute, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein created a most unceremonious — and undermining — split-screen moment, announcing the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for computer hacking that hobbled Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
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It wasn’t the first time the Russia saga had interrupted Trump’s royal treatment in a foreign kingdom: His visit to Saudi Arabia last year was marred by new disclosures, just as he was departing, about possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia and Trump’s reasons for firing former FBI Director James Comey.
This time, however, the indictments arrived at an even more perilous moment for the president. They come on the heels of his angry outbursts at the NATO summit in Brussels and decorum-breaking criticism of Great Britain’s prime minister that left European leaders astonished and appalled. And they arrive days ahead of his Monday summit in Helsinki with the man U.S. intelligence officials believe ordered the election meddling operation: Russian President Vladimir Putin — a meeting already fraught with controversy, and which top Democrats swiftly insisted on Friday that he cancel altogether.
Whether any of this was on the mind of special counsel Robert Mueller, who filed the indictments, or Rosenstein, who announced them, is unclear. Rosenstein’s news conference started later than planned — prompting insiders to speculate that he had hoped not to trample on the British royal reception for a president who has mused about firing him.
But the more significant timing was Trump’s imminent summit with Putin, who has denied interfering in American politics — a denial Trump has at times seemed to accept.
“It is astonishing show of strength by Mueller and Rosenstein to proceed with this matter in the run-up to the president’s meeting with Putin,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor of Lawfare blog.
In that sense, Mueller and Rosenstein might have made a power play — one that had some Trump allies insisting Friday that they were consciously trying to sabotage the meeting in Helsinki.
But Rosenstein also disclosed that he had briefed Trump on the indictments ahead of the president’s four-nation foreign trip. Wittes called that “an appropriate show of deference to the presidency and to the foreign policy interests of the United States… so that Trump knows what he’s dealing with when he meets Putin.”
Experts have been fretting for weeks about the upcoming meeting between new-to-politics Trump and a trained KGB officer with 20 years of diplomacy under his belt. There is little sign that Trump has a clear agenda for the summit, which will kick off with a private one-on-one session between the two leaders.
Trump’s prior knowledge of the indictments, however, did little to modify his tone while discussing Russia’s election interference on his trip. At a Thursday news conference at Chequers, the prime minister’s country estate, before Rosenstein’s appearance, Trump said he would raise the subject with Putin but doesn’t expect much in response.
“I know you’ll ask will we be talking about meddling. And I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump said.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.’ There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think,” he added. “But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”
The suddenly heightened drama around Trump’s meeting with Putin might overshadow even the political tornado that Trump created during the NATO Summit in Brussels, where he berated European countries for not spending more on their collective defense and tore into Germany for striking a lucrative energy deal with Moscow, and his two-day visit to England, where he seemed to give May’s wobbling government a political shove.
“The NATO Summit, the May meeting — everything will be completely eclipsed by the Trump-Putin summit,” predicted Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a D.C.-based think tank.
The immediate effect of the simultaneous storylines unfolding at home and abroad, however, was that Trump was separated from his Twitter feed, enjoying tea with the queen, while news that he would typically have reacted to in real time unfolded.
Instead of a characteristic “Witch Hunt!” tweet from Trump, the White House issued a defensive statement that for once did the talking for him — and notably left out any condemnation of Russia for the hacking.
“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
Trump had been in a cheerful mood on Friday, heaping praise on May — a leader who in the past he has described to his aides as “awkward” and “slightly cold” — to help undo the political damage he caused to her through his comments to The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid newspaper.
In the interview, Trump threatened to walk away from a potential trade deal with the United Kingdom because of May’s handling of Brexit — and seemed to give his endorsement to one of her political rivals, Boris Johnson, for prime minister. But in person, Trump came as close to an apology as he ever gets.
At a joint news conference at Chequers, he described May as a “terrific woman … doing a terrific job,” and touted the relationship between the United States and England as “the highest level of special.”
At one point, he noted that he even arrived to meet her with hat in hand, planning to apologize for the story. But, he said, she beat him to blaming his favorite enemy, noting that “it’s just the press.” May did not confirm or deny the exchange, but offered up her own lavish praise for Trump, even saying that she “welcomed his meeting with President Putin in Helsinki on Monday.”
“We agreed that it is important to engage Russia from a position of strength and unity, and that we should continue to deter and counter all efforts to undermine our democracies,” May added, projecting no sign of resentment over Trump’s comments about her leadership or his outbursts in Brussels.
Trump traveled with a gaggle of top aides all day, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson; national security adviser John Bolton; chief of staff John Kelly; policy adviser Stephen Miller; his new communications director, Bill Shine; and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The group — made up of West Wing newcomers, as well as aides like Kelly who are rumored to be imminently on their way out — appeared resigned to bouncing along with the waves Trump created along the way.
Ahead of the bilateral meeting with May, Trump joked to a press photographer that he was upset with a recent picture in The New York Times that made him look like he had a “double chin.” The group laughed.
And when asked about Trump’s incendiary interview with The Sun, Johnson tried to downplay the drama.
“It’s fragile enough as it is, I don’t think the president meant to add anything,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing new, really, except for the timing. There’s really nothing to report. As a reporter, this wasn’t a good story.” But Trump’s blazing path through Western Europe — and soon onward to Helsinki — certainly has been.