These Trump voters support the U.S. president's comments on Russia — and his walkback, too
Trump loyalists accept what happened in Helsinki — and his flip-flop
Words failed Donald Trump. But to some of his staunchest voters, at least the U.S. president hasn't failed them — not even after Trump's shambolic press conference in Finland.
Trump on Monday endorsed Russian President Vladimir Putin's "powerful" denial about Russian meddling in the U.S. election, undermining his own intelligence community in the process. Republican and Democratic critics panned Trump's performance as "shameful," "disgraceful" and "treasonous" before Trump touched down on U.S. soil.
Amid the furor, Trump claimed he misspoke, issuing a clarification on Tuesday: "I accept" American intelligence conclusions, Trump said, somewhat reversing the earlier statements he made under Putin's gaze. (Trump also hedged that wording, adding, "Could be other people also.")
Staunch Trump supporters in a blue-collar pocket of Maryland were unmoved either way, shrugging off Trump's initial remarks favouring Putin's denial, lauding the president for correcting a "wrong," and rationalizing Russia's interference in the U.S. democratic system by noting the U.S.'s own history of using money and propaganda to sway elections.
About 90 minutes outside Washington, D.C., in eastern Baltimore County, CBC News interviewed Trump loyalists in blue-collar Essex, Edgemere and Dundalk, communities that heavily favoured Trump in the 2016 Republican primary.
Here's what they said:
Carl Hobson, 79, is a familiar face at the Boulevard Diner in the former manufacturing town of Dundalk. Regulars at the gas station he's operated since 1964 know him as "the mayor of Edgemere," the community less than 10 minutes away, just over the Bear Creek bridge.
"You know that the Russians definitely interfered with the elections," he acknowledged. "It's nothing new. They've been doing it for years. And [Trump] didn't look at Putin and say, 'Hey, you're lying.' He negotiates different than every other politician."
The way Hobson sees it, Trump's apparent patronage of Putin on Monday was part of a grand strategy. Sure, Hobson reasons, Trump said on Monday that he believed Putin over his own intelligence community. But that doesn't mean he didn't "put America first," he says.
"If he accepted [Putin's] word on that, it would give [Trump] room to go to other places and fix other problems."
Hobson's politics are well-known around these parts. He made headlines in the area for hanging oversized Trump campaign signs below the fuel prices at his gas station.
As for his reaction to Trump walking back his defence of Putin and saying he now accepts American intel?
"I think he accepted it all along," Hobson says. "He was saying what he was saying to appease Putin because he's got other things in mind."
There are bigger concerns than Russia, he says, like purportedly large-scale voter fraud — a vanishingly rare phenomenon political scientists have debunked as a myth. Still, Hobson worries about non-citizens gaming the system.
"Does that ring your bell? It rings mine."
While pumping gas at the Hob's Carrol Fuel gas station with her three-year-old, Grayson, Ashlee Draper, 30, said she isn't sure whether Russia is an adversary, despite evidence showing Russian operatives interfered with the 2016 election.
"With everything going on in the world, you can't be enemies with anybody."
She appreciates Trump "walking on ice" around Putin, suggesting his cozy attitude was more about "just trying to keep things calm."
If Russia is a true enemy to the U.S., "I think he's honestly just keeping his enemies closer, to watch them," she said.
Putin may be a friend to the U.S. today — and Trump just wants to keep it that way.
"Anybody can turn at any time. Even my son's an angel one day, a nightmare the next day."
"I pray for him every day. I really do. Him and his family," says Tom, clutching a bag filled with Marlboro Blacks and a handful of random-pick Powerball tickets at the Hob's gas station.
Tom, who didn't give his last name out of fear of being targeted by "crazy, violent liberals," says Trump is doing what he can to run a country at a time when he feels conservatives are under attack. The criticism of the Trump-Putin summit is unfounded, he said, because diplomacy doesn't work by "making an ass out of somebody on the world stage."
"You cannot build a relationship with somebody if you jump in their crap in a world audience — if you embarrass them."
The 60-year-old former truck driver doesn't believe intensifying theories that Putin may have compromising information on Trump. Nor does he understand conservative media like Fox News "turning against" the president by criticizing his behaviour at Monday's news conference.
"What do they want? Would they be happy with a war?"
So far, he's happy with Trump's tax reforms, his Supreme Court picks and restrictions on immigration. He favours shutting the U.S. border completely amid concerns about illegal migrants and wants the border wall. What he doesn't want, he said, is confrontations over politics.
Any "crazy liberals" who come after him will be in for a surprise, he warned.
"A Second Amendment surprise."
John McCluskey, 37, does home-improvement work around the Dundalk area. It pays well enough, he said, and he wonders whether it's fair for the media to beat up on Trump over foreign policy and Russia when the U.S. economy feels like it's improving.
Bethlehem Steel and other plants for General Motors, Lever Brothers and Seagram's left town years ago. He feels like things are picking up again, with a new Amazon warehouse having opened in Dundalk in 2015.
On the U.S. approach to Russia, McCluskey said he doesn't see why Trump has been described as meek when he sees a leader who "ain't gonna take their shit."
Asked why Trump would side with Putin on Monday over the expertise of his own American advisers, McCluskey dismissed the wisdom of the president's intelligence team.
"He's found out a lot of the people behind him are crap anyways."
Over a plate of fettuccine Alfredo, Joyce Fennell, 73, said she sees nothing wrong with Trump's initial support for Putin's denial, or his eventual retraction.
"I give him credit for admitting he was wrong."
Sitting across the table, her husband, Archer, said Trump "flips all the time" with his rhetoric, but likes the overall direction the country is headed.
"What he has accomplished in what he's doing is far greater than when he speaks," Archer said. "If you take the country as a whole, what's going on, I think we're stronger."
Although Archer believes "there probably was Russian meddling" in the U.S. election, he noted that Americans have long sought to influence other elections abroad. Such was the way of the world, he said, and Americans may need to accept further Russian hacking attempts as "normal practice" for further elections to come.
If that prospect worries Joyce, she didn't show it.
"When you get to my age, you just accept what happens," she said, beckoning her husband to stop fretting about politics and finish eating.
Her pasta, she said, was getting cold.
See more of Trump's Tuesday afternoon news conference, where he addressed his Russia comments.