The thing about Trump's posture toward Putin isn't just that it's highly controversial and questionable given Russia's 2016 election interference; it's also totally counter to Trump's brand. This is the guy who wrote the “Art of the Deal” and, just days before his meeting with Putin, was wrecking shop at a NATO summit in hopes of getting fellow members to kick in more for the common defense.
Even as he has oscillated from being extremely tough on and extremely friendly toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has almost always been deferential to Putin. And that was certainly the case Monday.
By the end of the day, both Trump and Putin had been asked about the idea that Russia may be blackmailing Trump (Putin addressed it twice, in fact), and two Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), had suggested Putin had something on Trump. Once wary of looking too conspiratorial, they just went for it.
“Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous and inexplicable behavior is the possibility — the very real possibility — that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) went even further, saying it was “likely” that Russia had something on Trump.
“I think it's likely,” Merkley told BuzzFeed News. He added: “It's the standard strategy of Russia when people visit there who are important, to try to get compromising information on them, to set them up with hookers, to tape everything that goes on in their room. So it's likely that they have that.”
Yep, a United States senator is now talking openly about a United States president having been blackmailed using, in his own words, “hookers.” Charlie Dent, the recently retired Republican congressman, also voiced his suspicion about it on Tuesday morning on CNN.
Putin and Trump, for their parts, offered similar talking points to rebut the idea that Putin is pulling Trump's strings. After not appearing to totally deny that he had something on Trump during their news conference, Putin offered a flatter denial to Fox News's Chris Wallace, saying Trump was of no interest to him given he hadn't launched his political career when he was in Moscow in 2013.
“We don't have anything on them, and there can't be anything on them. I don't want to insult President Trump when I say this — and I may come [off] as rude — but before he announced that he will run for presidency, he was of no interest for us,” Putin said, according to Fox's translation. “He was a rich person but, well, there's plenty of rich persons in the United States. He was in the construction business. He organized the beauty pageants.
“It sounds like it's utter nonsense.”
Trump echoed that in an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity.
“I guess he said as strongly as you can say it, 'They have no information on Trump,'" Trump said, yet again apparently taking a former KGB officer at his word. “It was an interesting statement, too. You know, many years ago when I was there — what was it, '13 — a long time ago, he said there were many, many business people there. In all fairness, I was a very successful businessman, but I was one of a lot of people. And one thing you know if they had it, it would have been out. And so, he said it's nonsense.”
Exactly why Trump acts this way toward Putin is anybody's guess. One possible reason is that he truly admires the strongman and wants to be his friend. Another is that this is all a troll — a massive, obstinate overreaction to the narrative that Russia interfered in the election (and maybe elected Trump). Trump is known to do pretty much the opposite of what everyone urges him to do, and pretty much everyone, including his own party, has urged him to get tough on Putin.
But this is also a topic that Trump, according to Comey, hates. Comey said Trump asked him to investigate and disprove the lewd tape allegation. Comey wrote that it “bothered him if there was ‘even a 1 percent chance’ his wife, Melania, thought it was true.”
If Trump truly wanted to combat this story line, it would seem rather easy. Instead, he insists upon holding a private, two-hour meeting with Putin and repeatedly declining to press him on the 2016 election. Then he practically defends Putin in public, with the whole world watching.
It's becoming a topic that's more difficult to ignore. And even if Putin actually has nothing on Trump, it completely plays into his goal of destabilizing the United States and the West. The more chatter there is about an American president being compromised, the better for him.