On Tuesday, President Trump's son released emails in which he was told that the Russian government was working to elect Trump — something U.S. intelligence services long ago concluded.
On Wednesday, the elder Trump doubled down on his past doubts about that conclusion — even going so far as to suggest that it was Hillary Clinton that Putin wanted.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson, Trump expounded at length on this theory. Here's the full quote:
It’s something that you don’t like talking about, but again we are the most powerful country in the world, and we are getting more and more powerful because I’m a big military person. As an example, if Hillary had won, our military would be decimated. Our energy would be much more expensive. That’s what Putin doesn’t like about me. And that’s why I say, Why would he want me? Because from Day One I wanted a strong military; he doesn’t want to see that. And from Day One I want fracking and everything else to get energy prices low and to create tremendous energy. We’re going to be self-supporting — we just about are now. We’re going to be exporting energy. He doesn’t want that. He would like Hillary where she wants to have windmills. He would much rather have that because energy prices would go up and Russia, as you know, relies very much on energy. So there are many things that I do that are the exact opposite of what he would want. So what I keep hearing about that he would have rather had Trump, I think probably not because when I want a strong military — you know she wouldn’t have spent the money on military, when I want a strong military, when I want tremendous energy, we’re opening up coal, we’re opening up natural gas, we’re opening up fracking — all the things that he would hate, but nobody ever mentions that.
This isn't entirely surprising, in the context of everything Trump has said about Russian hacking in the 2016 election. Trump has occasionally conceded that Russia was probably behind the hacking, but he has never really conceded that it was meant to help him specifically.
It's not difficult to surmise why: Trump views the whole Russia matter as an effort to delegitimize his presidency, and the fact that he won by such a narrow margin means it's plausible that Russia put him over the top. He can't have that.
During the election, there was some thought that perhaps Russia was merely doing this to destabilize American democracy, not to benefit a specific candidate. But Trump takes things a step further here by suggesting — rather implausibly — that Putin in fact favored a President Clinton or at least didn't want a President Trump.
The reasons Putin may have favored Trump over Clinton are myriad. Putin's history with Clinton was a strained one, at best, for a whole host of reasons. Clinton in 2011 criticized corrupt parliamentary elections in Russia as “neither free nor fair.” It was during her time as secretary of state that Congress passed the Magnitsky Act instituting sanctions against Russia for human rights abuses (this remains perhaps the major sticking point between the two countries, and it's what that Russian lawyer who talked to Donald Trump Jr. last year was focused on). And after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Clinton in 2014 compared Putin to Hitler.
Trump, meanwhile, spent almost the entirety of his campaign saying curiously nice things about Putin, who was then a reviled foreign leader even among Republicans, and pushing the need for a better U.S.-Russia relationship.
Trump is clearly seeking to exploit his supporters' continued doubts about Russian hacking in the 2016. Polls show that not only do many Republicans not believe Russia hacked, but even fewer believe it was meant to help Trump. A May Fox News poll showed just 13 percent of Republicans thought Russia's involvement helped Trump, and a March CBS News poll showed just 13 percent thought it even tried to help Trump. Another 64 percent of Republicans said Russia didn't even interfere in the election.
This is why Trump will never back off his doubts. Conceding that Russia tried to help him is just too big a shot to his ego. Meanwhile, he has successfully created an alternate reality in which these consensus conclusions of the intelligence community are fake news — proof that Trump's opponents will do anything to undermine him.
The question, as always, is when will Trump have taken this too far? When will his claims that run counter to the intelligence community and to his own son's well-publicized emails cause his supporters to lose faith in his credibility? Trump doesn't seem to have an “off” button on this stuff; his inclination, instead, is to push just as hard in the opposite direction.
For the first time, though, he's not just pitted against the intelligence community and logic, but against his own son's paper trail.