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Moments That Define A Presidency

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump's statements at that press conference in Helsinki this week raised such controversy that some are calling it a crisis for his presidency. Other presidents have faced similar moments. For Jimmy Carter, it was in 1979 in what came to be called his malaise speech. In that speech, he blamed America's woes at the time on a lack of confidence and sense of community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JIMMY CARTER: It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.

KING: Pundits say that speech ended Carter's effectiveness. But, in fact, it was not the speech that sunk the president in the polls. It was his mass firing of his cabinet two days later. So we asked commentator Cokie Roberts about how this latest presidential controversy stacks up historically. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel. Nice to talk to you.

KING: You, too. Our first question comes from Ken Perkins, who wonders how this will play out for the president politically.

KEN PERKINS: Is Trump's defense of Russian meddling in the 2016 election his version of Gerald Ford's, there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, comment during 1976 debates that helped sink Ford's electoral prospects?

ROBERTS: Well, I'd take issue with the characterization of what happened with Ford. In his second debate with Carter, he did, in fact, make that eye-popping statement about Eastern Europe, saying later that he meant the spirit of the people couldn't be crushed by the USSR.

But even though some Carter operatives have said that that was the critical moment in winning the campaign, polls don't show that, Noel. Ford went from a deficit of 33 points in Gallup after the Democratic convention up to even with Carter.

The former president himself told me that he believed it was his pardoning of Nixon that defeated him. And it's instructive in this situation. As with the Carter cabinet firings, actions speak louder than words.

KING: We've certainly seen that in this situation.

ROBERTS: Right.

KING: All right. Our next question has to do with the precedence for the Helsinki meeting. And it comes from Clay Hall on Twitter. He asks, has a president ever met with a Soviet or Russian leader one-on-one alone?

ROBERTS: Yes. Reagan and Gorbachev spent hours together with only interpreters in the room. And at the time, it wasn't seen as a good sign because there was a sense there were so many problems, they had to keep talking. But eventually, that relationship greatly improved, much to the surprise of most political observers, since Reagan had characterized the Soviet Union as the evil empire. But then, of course, that empire crumbled.

There've been lots of other one-on-one meetings - Obama and Merkel, Obama and the pope, as well as what are called pull-asides at group meetings, where two leaders talk privately. But usually, those are highly orchestrated, even scripted. And that's not what happened with Trump in Helsinki or in his previous private meeting with Putin at the G-20 where there was only a Russian interpreter present.

KING: As we said earlier, the fallout from Trump's post-meeting statements has been very big. He's gotten criticism from all corners, which leads us to these questions.

SUSAN WAUGH: Will the Helsinki press conference define Trump's presidency?

HECTOR RAMIREZ: How do you think people are going to remember in history today's speech in Helsinki by President Trump with Vladimir Putin?

KING: OK. That was Susan Waugh and Hector Ramirez. Cokie, has any president ever had so many defining moments?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) No. We've thought so many times, this is the defining moment, either for the Trump candidacy or presidency. And what we've learned in this polarized country is that his firm supporters are going to stick with him no matter what. But what history does tell us is that actions speak louder than words. And we'll see what happens in his actions in terms of Russia, North Korea, NATO, and see whether those end up hurting him.

KING: All right. Cokie Roberts, thank you so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

KING: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about politics and government by tweeting us with the hashtag #askcokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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