There is a problem with the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But it is not the problem we are fixated upon.
That problem is sometimes called "Russiagate." It is a problem of control and manipulation.
It involves the possibility that Mr. Putin, the autocratic Russian President, used his connections to Mr. Trump's presidential-election team and possibly to Mr. Trump himself to manipulate the outcome of last year's U.S. election and possibly to change U.S. policy positions.
Maybe such a plot exists. There is an equally good chance it never did. We have not yet seen persuasive evidence one way or another.
There is credible electronic evidence suggesting that the e-mails stolen from the servers of the Democratic Party's campaign office last year were passed to WikiLeaks from Russian sources. Those e-mails proved innocuous, but their existence probably contributed to a negative image of Hillary Clinton.
There is also solid evidence that at least four people in Mr. Trump's circle met with the Russian ambassador to the United States and other officials without informing U.S. authorities – former national-security adviser Michael Flynn, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, foreign-policy adviser Carter Page, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Mr. Flynn was forced to resign over his repeated deceptions around these meetings. Mr. Manafort, who is known to have been a lobbyist and go-between for various dark figures in Russia and in pro-Russian factions in Ukraine, is being disowned publicly by Mr. Trump.
It's possible that more of these officials will have to resign, and some could face criminal charges for lying under oath to Congress or failing to register as a lobbyist or foreign agent.
So far, there is nothing connecting their meetings to election or policy manipulation, or to Mr. Trump (who has not made any policy moves beneficial to Russia). CNN's big scoop this week, an unsourced report that Mr. Trump's associates "communicated with suspected Russian operatives," does not contain any information suggesting they were trying to manipulate the election, and quotes sources saying they have no such information.
The documents and dossiers leaked by intelligence agencies have mainly concerned Mr. Putin's funding of campaigns to flood news and social-media sites with anti-Clinton news stories, many of them fabricated. This definitely happened, but it is far from illegal, and probably would have happened without Mr. Trump's input or existence. Or, in fact, Mr. Putin's: The far-right media outlets in Mr. Trump's orbit manufacture plenty of their own creative fiction without needing Russian assistance.
It's sensible for U.S. agencies and legislators to investigate the possibility of a plot. But we should prepare ourselves for the very likely possibility that Russiagate won't add up to much.
Actual collusion involving the President would be hard to find. It is entirely possible that Mr. Trump lied about some of the meetings, or his knowledge of them (he lies about many things), and such lies could be impeachable offences. But impeachment is a political process; it would require a majority of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives to believe that trying Mr. Trump would improve re-election prospects in their districts, and then for two-thirds of Senators to believe that convicting him would please their own constituents. Mr. Trump remains popular among Republican voters.
Masha Gessen, the veteran Russian journalist who was forced to flee to the United States because of Mr. Putin's persecution, has dismissed the possibility of any collusion being found as "vanishingly small" – and as a distraction from the real Putin-Trump problem. "Russia has served as a crutch for the American imagination," she writes – Americans believe that when the conspiracy is exposed, "our national nightmare will be over."
But it won't. The larger Trump problem involves not control and manipulation, but influence and support. We should fear him not because of secret plots, but because he admires and imitates Mr. Putin's ideas and strategies – right out in the open.
His contempt for democratic institutions and the impartial media, his attacks and restrictions on the rights of racial and religious minorities, his delegitimization of political opponents, his placing of political operatives in civil-service offices, his apparent efforts to strip people of voting rights – these are the signature acts of Mr. Putin, a man Mr. Trump has said he admires and wishes to emulate. Americans should worry less about the distant influence of Mr. Putin, and more about the real-life imitation they've created at home.