Columnist

As with a rotting fish, the stench from President Trump’s execrable performance in Helsinki only grows more putrid with the passage of time. The leader of the sole superpower was simpering and submissive in the face of a murderous dictator’s “strong and powerful” lies.

It is ludicrous to pretend that changing “would” into “wouldn’t” might have changed Trump’s message, which included a conspiratorial rant about the FBI and not a word of specific censure of Russian crimes. Having committed a “Kinsley gaffe” (i.e., saying what he really thought), the president couldn’t bring himself to convincingly read the “clarification” concocted by some over-clever spinmeister. He felt compelled to add that the election “meddling” could have been the work of lots of “other people” besides the Russians, thereby negating the point of the exercise.

And, predictably, a day later Trump walked back the walkback by bragging that “so many people at the higher ends of intelligence” — Russian intelligence? — “loved my press conference performance in Helsinki.” He then repeated, once again, Moscow’s propaganda by maintaining that the only alternative to appeasement of Putin is “war.” He directly contradicted Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, once again, by denying that Russian cyberattacks are continuing just days after Coats warned that the warning signs are “blinking red.” Worst of all, he did Putin another solid by questioning whether the United States would sacrifice its sons to defend Montenegro — a tiny state whose NATO accession Russia allegedly tried to block by fomenting a coup. Far from strengthening NATO, as he disingenuously claims, Trump is continually sabotaging it.

Even Russian state television admits that Trump “really smells like an agent of the Kremlin.” The only question is whether he is a witting or unwitting agent. But if Trump is, at best, a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin, what does that make Trump’s useful idiots? All of the “conservatives” (I use the word loosely) who serve as the president’s enablers should understand the price of their partisanship: They are weakening U.S. security and facilitating foreign aggression.

The most useful and idiotic enablers are at Fox “News” Channel. The propagandists (a category that excludes genuine journalists such as Chris Wallace) were in fine fettle after Helsinki. Tucker Carlson, seemingly intent on making America a safe space for xenophobes, claimed that Mexico is guilty of far worse election meddling than Russia “by packing our electorate.” Sean Hannity praised his idol for being “very strong,” thereby raising the epistemological question of whether strength in supinity is possible. Jeanine Pirro rebutted Trump’s critics by demanding: “What was he supposed to do, take a gun out and shoot Putin?” (Was that the only alternative?) And Lou Dobbs, with elementary-school eloquence, dismissed all naysaying as “stupid stuff.”

This brainwashing is as effective as it is preposterous. In a recent Economist/YouGov survey, only 40 percent of Republicans said the United States should stay in NATO and 56 percent said that Trump’s (borderline treasonous) relationship with Putin is a good thing. In the course of my lifetime, Republicans have gone from denouncing useful idiots to becoming useful idiots.

There is, to be sure, some unease among elected Republicans with the head-spinning transformation of their party. But the strongest condemnation came from those who will not face the voters again — e.g., Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who rightly said, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Politically ambitious Republicans were mealy-mouthed in their response, pronouncing themselves “deeply troubled” (Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming), or calling it a “missed opportunity” (Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina), or not even mentioning Trump by name (Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas).

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R -Wis.), a reputed conservative who has misplaced his principles, minimized Russia’s interference by claiming that it had no impact on the election (how does he know?), refused to support legislation that would protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and affirmed a House report that claimed Russia was not trying to help Trump — something that Putin admitted in Helsinki. In so doing, Ryan continued to provide cover for House Republicans such as Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) who are serving the interests of Trump — and Putin! — with their attempts to obstruct the investigation of Russian election interference.

As soon as Trump came out with his farcical “double-negative” excuse on Tuesday, many Republicans retracted even their mild censure and gratefully rushed back to his side. Typical was Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.): “I’m just glad he clarified it.” (Clarified what, exactly?) This is reminiscent of the old Soviet joke: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Trump pretends to apologize, and the Republicans pretend to believe him.

Most of the Republicans in Washington know better, but they are too cowardly to say so — or, even more important, to do anything to stop Trump. They are giving in to Putin so they may get Brett M. Kavanaugh in return. It is not a good bargain.