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Analysis

Here are the 358 words Donald Trump said when asked if he works for Putin. (None of them were ‘no.’)

Even when it's a softball from a friend, Trump struggles to give a straight answer on the central national security question of the age.

Fox News' Jeanine Pirro asks President Donald Trump about reports he's sought to conceal records of his conversations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. CREDIT:  Screenshot/Fox News
Fox News' Jeanine Pirro asks President Donald Trump about reports he's sought to conceal records of his conversations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. CREDIT: Screenshot/Fox News

President Donald Trump’s friend and booster Jeanine Pirro chuckled when she asked the question.

Are you now, or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?” she said.

His answer took a minute and 52 seconds and followed the rambling, diversionary style he’s always favored when speaking off the cuff. He said 358 words, punctuated with Pirro’s affirming laughter.

“No” was not one of them.

Instead, the president ran through some of his greatest hits. Everyone suspicious of him lacks integrity, the economy is good, and the real story here isn’t the mounting circumstantial evidence that the U.S. presidency has been hijacked by its oldest geopolitical foe — it’s that Trump himself has been insulted.

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I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump began. “It’s called ‘the failing New York Times’ for a reason. They’ve gotten me wrong for three years.”

In the word-labyrinth that unfurled from there, Trump attacked FBI officials, claimed to be tougher on Russia than any of his predecessors despite having repeatedly tried to derail sanctions tied to that country’s election interference on his behalf, and said that coverage of the ongoing probe of his campaign’s interactions with Russian interests is only converting doubters to his side of the political battle.

Here’s the full answer Trump gave:

I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written. And if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing. But the, the headline of that article, it’s called “The failing New York Times” for a reason, they’ve gotten me wrong for three years. They’ve actually gotten me wrong for many years before that. But you look at what’s going on, you know, I fired James Comey. I call him lying James Comey, because he was a terrible liar, and he did a terrible job as the FBI director. Look at what happened with the Hillary Clinton and the e-mails and the Hillary Clinton investigation, one of the biggest screw-ups that anybody’s ever seen as an investigation. And what happened after I fired him? Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, his lover, Lisa Page, they did it. And, you know, they’re all gone. Most of those people, many, many people from the top ranks of the FBI, they’ve all been fired or they had to leave. And they’re all gone. This is what they were talking about. And, obviously, nothing was found. And I can tell you this, if you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other — probably any other president period, but certainly the last three or four presidents, modern day presidents. Nobody’s been as tough as I have from any standpoint including the fact that we’re doing oil like we’ve never done it, we’re setting records in our country with oil and exporting oil and many other things, so, which is obviously not great for them, because that’s what they, that’s where they get their money for the most part. But many other things. So I, I think it was a great insult. And the New York Times is a disaster as a paper. It’s a, it’s a very horrible thing they said, and they’ve gone so far that people that weren’t necessarily believers are now big believers, because they said that was a step too far. They really are a disaster of a newspaper.

Pirro didn’t press him for a straight yes or no when he’d run out of steam.

But by pegging the question to a Times story from Saturday revealing that FBI officials had opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president after he fired James Comey in 2017, the Fox host seemed intent on helping Trump get back on the front foot.

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The Times story is the less damaging of two significant new reports this weekend revealing just how much Trump has done to freak out veteran public servants about his interactions with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Trump personally confiscated handwritten notes kept by the translator who facilitated his hours-long sit-down with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, the Washington Post reported Saturday evening.

He also warned that translator never to discuss what he’d heard with anyone else in Trump’s government, according to the paper. No records of the Trump-Putin discussion exist as a result, not even highly classified summaries that professional intelligence analysts or veteran diplomats could use to understand just what had been said between the two men in confidence.

The Times report that federal investigators had opened a file on the president before handing the investigation off to special prosecutor Robert Mueller is, by comparison, a soft hit for Trump. It shows that veteran counterintelligence officials were more alarmed by Comey’s firing than we previously knew them to be. But it doesn’t dramatically alter the landscape of the ongoing query into Trump’s ties with the elite crust of a bellicose world power whose richest citizens have enriched the Trump family for years through large real estate deals.

The Post’s story, by contrast, has Trump personally taking secretive action to restrict information — not just to the public, but to the senior-most members of his own country’s government who would be best positioned to recognize the signs of either risky screw-ups or outright cooperation in the president’s private chatter with Putin.

Pirro asked him about the Post’s story too, in due course, and the president again employed the rambling, unfocused style of deflection that’s characterized his public persona for years. Presidents talk with the leaders of all sorts of different countries, don’t you know?

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“I’m not keeping anything under wraps. I couldn’t care less,” Trump said. Pirro did not pin him down on a time for releasing the notes that he reportedly has concealed or destroyed about the conversation.

Trump expressed befuddlement that people are so focused on his chats with Putin but not quite so interested in his meetings with other leaders, insist that “anybody could have listened to that meeting” when there was no recording made of it. He also took potshots at Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.

By the end of his second answer, Trump was back to reciting the electoral college scoreboard from his 2016 election win.