We’ve finally reached a point where people — and not just people, but even some Republican people — feel the need to go there.
You know, there.
Not collusion there or obstruction-of-justice there or anything to do with the emoluments clause or Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. But there, where the real, dark question lies: Is Vladimir Putin actually holding something over Donald Trump’s head?
The question has been there all along — whether the answer is with the so-called pee tape or in his undisclosed tax returns — but it was inevitable following the Trump-Putin joint press conference in Helsinki that the question would go mainstream. Where was the Trump we know — the bully boy who had just stormed his way through NATO — suddenly being described as somewhere between servile and toadying? What else do you call an American president who stands next to Putin and and says he trusts Putin’s gangster government more than his own.
It was so clear that tabloid headline writers were calling Trump “Putin’s poodle” and Time magazine had Trump morphing into Putin on its cover. They’re not as bad, I guess, as former CIA director John Brennan calling Trump’s behavior “treasonous,” but I’m pretty sure Trump took the poodle insult harder.
It’s not that there can’t be alternative explanations for Trump’s deference, starting with his overriding concern that any admission of Russian involvement in his 2016 election only serves to delegitimize his upset victory, which, as you know, he won overwhelmingly despite not actually having won the popular vote.
But when Jeff Flake, the retiring Republican senator from Arizona and frequent Trump critic, goes to the Senate floor to question why Trump would go to Helsinki to side with Putin against America’s intelligence agencies or to blame America’s “foolishness” and “stupidity” and “rigged witch hunt” for our bad relations with Russia, Flake couldn’t resist going all the way.
Trump’s behavior, Flake said, “now leaves us contemplating the dark mystery: Why did he do that? What would compel our president to do such a thing?”
It’s no mystery what Flake meant by mystery. Flake wanted to know why Trump and Putin met alone — apparently at Trump’s suggestion — for more than two hours and why Trump’s closest advisors still don’t seem to know what Trump and Putin had agreed to. As many have pointed out, Kissinger was there with Nixon in Beijing and Reagan had a whole team with him when he met Gorbachev in Geneva.
The dark mystery. It has everyone talking now. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN that while he wanted to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, “More and more, I come to the conclusion that after the Helsinki performance and since, that I really do wonder whether the Russians have something on him.”
I can’t bring myself to believe in watershed moments any more regarding Trump. I read the polls. He’s been running a solid 40-42 percent approval rating for a year now. Charlottesville didn’t change anything. The outrage over the placing-of-children-in-cages story, which, by the way, gets worse with each new revelation, hasn’t seemed to change anything.
But in Friday’s New York Times, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who spent many years in the CIA, wrote an op-ed beginning this way: “Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the CIA, I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”
Meanwhile, there’s the viral video of Dan Coats, the current director of national intelligence, being informed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that Trump had invited Putin to visit Washington in the fall. “Say that again. Did I hear you?” Coats said, clearly stunned to hear the news from a reporter and not, say, from his boss. “OK, that’s going to be special.”
Coats had already defended the assessment that the Russians interfered with the 2016 elections and were going for it again in the 2018 midterms. No wonder they were saying at the White House that Coats had gone rogue. It may be just a coincidence, but The New York Times had a story earlier saying that all of this — all the Russian interference in 2016, all the connections to Putin — were laid out for Trump by intelligence officials two months before he took the oath of office.
At the same conference, in Aspen, FBI Director Chris Wray refuted the Trump claim that the Mueller investigation was a witch hunt. When told that Trump was still saying that the Russians aren’t active — which he sort of walked back in what is now semi-officially known as Trump’s Walkback Week — Wray said, “He’s got his view. I can tell you what my view is.”
The fact that both leading Trump officials would dispute the president so clearly means either they’re both expecting to be fired or that, for a few, country over party is still a thing. Just don’t spend much of your time looking to Congress for guidance on that.
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of what Trump called Putin’s “incredible offer” to have the Russians interrogate 11 Americans, including a former ambassador, in exchange for giving Robert Mueller access to the Mueller-indicted Russia 12. A day later, Sarah Sanders said the idea was actually being considered, at which the time the outrage meter blew so high that the Capitol dome was set atwirl. Maybe Trump wasn’t a very stable genius after all.
In a rare Trump rebuke, the Senate voted 98-0 for a resolution saying, in effect, no American president would ever hand over Americans to that extra-judicial nightmare that is Putin’s Russia. It was only 98-0 because two senators weren’t there for the vote. For once, there wasn’t a poodle in sight. That streak lasted for maybe five minutes — when two other similar, but tougher, resolutions were shot down without a vote. Pretty soon Republicans will be back trying to shut down the Mueller investigation.
In my last column, I asked if anything would change after Helsinki or, for that matter, anything else Trump does. That’s the other dark mystery — deep, dark and, 18 months into Trump’s disastrous presidency, still unsolved.