Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

The events of the past few days — culminating in President Trump’s meeting today 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 serious doubt, and the only alternative interpretations of that now-established basic bargain that make any sense are actually more nefarious than that one.

In Helsinki today, 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.”

On Friday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted a dozen Russian military intelligence officials in an extraordinary and wide-ranging set of cyberattacks 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:

In blaming only previous U.S. 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 signaling 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 today’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 past 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.

Opinion | Cartoons: Trump’s Russia connections, illustrated

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 Russia’s 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 Clinton’s emails. And according to a tally by ThinkProgress, Trump publicly drew attention to the material leaked by WikiLeaks — which received it from Russia, according to the Mueller indictment — more than 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 funneled 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 so. 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 President 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.

* RUSSIAN MEDIA LOVES TRUMP: The Associated Press reports that the Kremlin-friendly Russian media is widely portraying Trump as unfairly maligned in the United States and is praising his meeting with Putin:

Newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda dismissed the U.S. investigation into Trump’s “mythical work for the Kremlin,” and praised Trump for meeting Putin “despite opposition from his own elite and the hysterics of the media.” … Panelists on popular Sunday night talk show “Vecher,” or “Evening,”  … described him as hobbled … by special investigator Robert Mueller’s probe of alleged Russian election interference.

Sounds remarkably similar to the message coming from our very own state media, with the exception of the “hobbled” part.

* RUSSIAN MINISTRY AGREES WITH TRUMP: After Trump blamed bad relations with Russia on previous U.S. leaders and the Mueller probe, and not on Russian behavior or sabotaging of our elections, this happened:

No wonder Trump said the meeting with Putin would be the easiest of them all …

* 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: 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 Stephen K. Bannon tell us that Republican candidates should fully embrace Trumpism? Seems they don’t agree with the wisdom of that idea.

* HOW DEMOCRATS ARE RUNNING: E.J. Dionne Jr. talks to Democrats running for Congress in New Jersey and finds they are campaigning on the failures of Trump/GOP rule and the public desire for a check on the president. Note this, from Tom Malinowski, who’s running in the 7th District:

“We’re now the party of fiscal responsibility in America. We didn’t just add $2 trillion to the national debt for that tax cut that Warren Buffett didn’t want,” he tells me. “We’re the party of law enforcement in America; we don’t vilify the Federal Bureau of Investigation every single day. We’re the party of family values. We don’t … take kids from their parents at the border. We’re the party of patriotism in America that wants to defend this country against our foreign adversaries.”

Seems like a good argument. Note that he is not shying away from taking on Trump on immigration.

* AND WARREN TESTS WATERS FOR 2020: The Times reports on the aggressive steps Elizabeth Warren is taking toward a 2020 run, while also noting moves by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker:

Senior Democrats see their party in a historically volatile state, and they are wary of attempting another Clinton-style coronation. But many Democrats believe the party’s turn left, combined with the rising fury of progressive women and the grass-roots appetite for a political brawler, have created an especially inviting environment for Ms. Warren.

Lurking in the background, of course, is Bernie Sanders. Democrats think Warren might be able to capture the energy of the activist base and siphon it away from him.