It’s a good thing the Russians interfered in the election, a guy selling hot dogs told me as I made my way to Congress following the “surrender summit” to gauge Republican reaction. If it helped get Donald Trump elected, the vendor said, it was worth it.
Would Democrats be complaining about Russian interference if Hillary Clinton had won? “Not in your life.”
You can bet most Republican voters agree. And while some Republican lawmakers condemned Mr. Trump for acting like Vladimir Putin’s poodle, you can bet they won’t abandon him in large number. With midterm elections in November, they can ill afford an open break.
But what has – or should have – Republicans rattled now is what the Mueller inquiry is onto. The probe into election interference has taken on new life, first because of its indictment of the dirty dozen Russian intelligence officers, second as a result of Mr. Trump’s obsequious Helsinki display. The failure to confront or at least counter Mr. Putin on his villainy has revived the suspicion that, as Democratic senator Jeff Merkley said, President Trump is compromised, in hock to the Kremlin on some grave account.
Indeed, the possibility is no longer far-fetched. What else could explain the President’s never-ending pattern of ingratiating behaviour, culminating in the fanboy flourish in Finland?
The Mueller probe may get to the bottom of it. Its dozen indictments, rendered with scrupulous detail, showed how far investigators have penetrated Russian intelligence networks. If there is one thing that could derail this presidency, it’s a finding that Mr. Trump, in essence, has been blackmailed.
There was something different about him at the Helsinki press conference and in a follow-up interview by Sean Hannity, his Fox News lackey. Usually, Mr. Trump dominates these encounters with percolating self-confidence, bluster and bravado. It was missing this time. He appeared defensive, vulnerable. The look in his eyes wasn’t the usual look. There was a trace of fear.
This should have been, as was the case with the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a public-relations score for him. His point that it is better to get along with the world’s second largest nuclear power than to be in a threatening relationship makes sense. But he had to show that a co-operative relationship with the Kremlin wasn’t on Mr. Putin’s terms. By giving the squinty-eyed dictator a pass on most everything, he jarringly failed that test. He allowed the meddling in elections story to overwhelm the proceedings. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Rand Paul claimed that all countries interfere in foreign elections. “We all do it,” he argued, suggesting that the hyperventilating isn’t warranted.
As a way of explaining his warmth to Mr. Putin, it is often said that Mr. Trump admires authoritarian types and genuinely believes the United States must get along with him. But could these factors explain why he is nicer to the Russian leader than to his own NATO allies; why he won’t criticize Mr. Putin for his actions in Ukraine, in Syria, on the attempted election sabotage; why he contradicts his own national security team with his soft positions; why he continually embarrasses himself with his submissiveness?
Former CIA director John Brennan, an implacable Trump foe, noted before the summit meeting that “this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin … continues to say to me that he has something to fear.” The Russians, he added, “have had long experience with Mr. Trump and may have things they could expose.”
At the Helsinki summit press conference, Mr. Putin, who admitted he wanted Mr. Trump to win the election, ridiculed such a notion. Of course, if he did have compromising information on the President, he could hardly say so. Mr. Trump, who interestingly insisted that their meeting be one-on-one, jumped in gratuitously there and again in the Hannity interview to insist that if they had anything on him, we could all be sure it would be out by now.
That, of course, is twaddle. If the Kremlin had incriminating material, such as videos of Mr. Trump with Moscow prostitutes or evidence of money laundering entanglements with the Russian underground, why let it be known? Rather, they would continue to dangle it over his head as long as possible while exacting the best benefits possible.
If that’s the scenario that is being played out and if that’s what the Mueller inquiry can point to, Donald Trump’s days are numbered.