The events of the past few days - culminating in President Donald Trump's meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin - have rendered this interpretation inescapable: Trump is currently in the process of repaying Putin for helping to deliver him the presidency.
Whatever comes of this meeting - even if Trump does, in fact, gain some concessions from Putin, and even if Putin does not get what he wants out of Trump - that storyline will remain operative. The known facts have now established it beyond any reasonable doubt, and the only alternative interpretations of that now-established basic bargain are actually more nefarious than that one.
In Helsinki Monday, Trump and Putin spoke to reporters before entering their private meeting. Trump predicted that "I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship," adding that "getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing." But as The Post's write-up puts it: "Trump did not mention Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign as one of the topics to be discussed."
Last Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen Russian military intelligence officials for an extraordinary and wide-ranging set of cyber attacks on Hillary Clinton's campaign and Democratic National Committee officials, alleging a detailed plot to sabotage the election that established the clearest connection yet to the Russian government. Yet not only did Trump fail to say he'd bring up Russian sabotage of our election with Putin, he also tweeted this:
Trump tweeted "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"
In blaming only previous US leadership and the current Mueller probe for bad relations with Russia - and not Russia's attack on our democracy, which is particularly galling, now that this attack has been described in great new detail - Trump is not merely spinning in a way that benefits himself. He's also giving a gift to Putin, by signalling that he will continue to do all he can to delegitimize efforts to establish the full truth about Russian interference, which in turn telegraphs that Russia can continue such efforts in the future (which U.S. intelligence officials have warned will happen in the 2018 elections). In a sense, by doing this, Trump is colluding with such efforts right now.
It has been widely pointed out that Putin benefits from Monday's meeting simply because it is happening. As the New York Times puts it, the meeting will be a "success" if it takes place "without any major friction," which would provide "a symbolic end to Western efforts to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in 2014." On top of this, of course, all the other actions Trump is taking to destabilize the western international order - the escalating trade wars, the attacks on NATO that are obviously designed to weaken it - also benefit Putin.
But the point I want to make here is that, even if you do not view those steps by Trump as a kind of reward to Putin for helping swing the election, since they could be motivated by all sorts of other things, it is unavoidably clear - based on the new information and Trumpian conduct we've seen in the last few days - that Trump's ongoing treatment of Russian electoral interference, in particular, is essentially a reward for doing just that. Even if Trump does end up taking a tougher line with Russia on international affairs, that point stands, as long as he continues to dismiss the seriousness of the sabotage itself.
Alternatively, even if you think Trump should be trying for smoother relations with Russia, he could (and should) pair such an effort with genuine condemnation of Russian interference and a serious effort to ward it off in the future, since, after all, what's at stake is our democracy. Indeed, as the Lawfare team points out, Mueller's indictment basically reveals that Putin has been lying to Trump all along about the scale and scope of its sabotage effort.
But Trump is now shrugging at that confirmed lying, and he's still not taking this act of sabotage at all seriously. Remember, Trump himself called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. And according to a tally by Think Progress, Trump publicly drew attention to the material leaked by Wikileaks - which received it from Russia, according to the Mueller indictment - over 100 times during the campaign. We don't know how much influence this sabotage had. But as Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg points out, beyond how many votes were directly moved, the DNC was badly disabled by the cyber subterfuge at a critical moment, which had to have had some kind of serious impact.
Trump, who himself used the material funnelled through Wikileaks by Russia as a weapon, is in effect now rewarding Russian efforts to supply it, by refusing to treat this sabotage as a crime against our political system. You can, of course, adopt far worse interpretations of what Trump is giving to Putin as part of this basic bargain, and of his motives for doing it. But even if you don't, this one is now inescapable.
* A BIG WIN FOR PUTIN:
The New York Times reports on all the ways that Vladimir Putin wins simply by getting Trump to show up for their meeting. And:
"Deploying hackers, disinformation campaigns and support for far-right populist forces in Europe, Mr Putin has long sought to fracture the West and upend the established geopolitical order. But Mr Trump, who routinely attacks European leaders and has started a trade war with some of America's closest allies, is now effectively doing the job for him."
In addition to this meeting, much of what Trump is doing toward our allies is also "winning" . . . for Putin.
* ALL THE TIMES TRUMP PRAISED PUTIN:
CNN tallies up a whole bunch of examples, including his credulous acceptance of Putin's denial of electoral sabotage, and his claim that he'll make a "deal" with the Russian leader. CNN comments:
"Trump is drawn to strongmen with a tinge - or more than a tinge - of authoritarianism in their leadership style. There's a part of him that admires Putin's ability to command total fealty - and not have to deal with an adversarial (a.k.a. independent) media . . . What's clear is that Trump isn't going to emerge from Monday's summit . . . with much to say about Putin that's negative."
Indeed, it's not that hard to imagine Trump emerging with praise for Putin's relationship with his state media.
* REPUBLICANS EDGE AWAY FROM TRUMP:
The Post's Dave Weigel has a good report on Republican candidates who are carefully distancing themselves from Trump's agenda, even in the hallowed Midwest:
"Doubts about the ongoing tariff battle and about the administration's agenda on health care, spending and immigration have changed the terrain. Rather than back the president and Republicans, the Midwest has begun to flirt with candidates who would keep them in check. . . . Republican candidates now are . . . unable to fully share in the president's popularity with their own party members but tagged with his least popular moves by general election voters."
But wait, didn't Steve Bannon tell us that Republican candidates should fully embrace Trumpism? Seems they don't agree with the wisdom of that idea.