When presidential candidate Donald Trump asked Russia to find his 2016 opponent’s emails — i.e., “Russia, if you’re listening” — Republicans hinted that maybe this was a bad idea. So Trump claimed it was a joke. And Republicans moved on and stood by him.
Trump wasn’t joking. He will not be more cautious in the future. And if anything, the big lesson he learned seems to have been that he has so effectively demolished this norm that it no longer encumbers him whatsoever.
He is so unencumbered, in fact, that he’s now seeking foreign political help from perhaps the man most reviled by Americans.
In a new interview on a website that just so happens to be run by a key figure in the Ukraine scandal, Trump came out and said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should provide more purported dirt on Hunter Biden.
Trump suggested that the Russian leader had a window into some of Hunter Biden’s work in the region, recycling an unproven claim about money flowing from the then-wife of Moscow’s former mayor to the president’s son. Trump added: “I would think Putin would know the answer to that. I think he should release it. I think we should know that answer.”
Trump also made clear this wasn’t just an off-the-cuff comment, saying again, “I think Putin now would be willing to probably give that answer. I’m sure he knows.”
Just to put this in perspective, it was pretty objectionable when Trump asked Russia for help in 2016, but Putin wasn’t nearly the pariah he is now. A poll this week showed that just 1 percent of Americans have a positive view of Putin, compared with 88 percent who have a negative one (including 80 percent very negative). That’s entering territory generally reserved for your Osama bin Ladens, your Saddam Husseins and your Ayatollah Khomeinis.
To Trump, though, this appears to be merely a chance for yet more leverage. The logic seems to be: The American people hate you, so why not do something that at least a fair number of them might appreciate? (Indeed, that seems to be implicit in Trump’s comment that Putin “now would be willing” to do such a thing — apparently because the war in Ukraine has gone poorly for Russia?)
And indeed, that might not be a terrible bet. When is the last time a really substantial number of Republicans said they liked Putin? Right after Trump won in 2016, and we learned that Russia had interfered to assist in that victory. Favorable GOP views of Putin shot up from 16 percent the previous summer to 37 percent in one poll.
Trump’s suggestion is, of course, significantly more fraught than it was in 2016. While he led something of a Republican reevaluation of the party’s posture toward Putin and Russia, it never fully stuck with the base. Republicans reverted to their previous anti-Russia posture as Trump’s presidency wore on. His supporters might have believed the Russia investigation was a “hoax,” but it wasn’t because they believed Russia was actually good or a legitimate actor on the world stage.
Putin’s newfound status in the United States would also seem to call into question any such dirt he might pony up. It’s become blatantly obvious that his invasion of Ukraine has been premised on disinformation — including the idea that this was about “denazification” and that Ukraine was somehow the aggressor.
There are a fair number of influential conservative pundits and GOP lawmakers suggesting that the Putin-versus-Ukraine dynamic isn’t as simple as evil-versus-victim. And some Republicans have bought into baseless conspiracy theories about bio labs in Ukraine. But when it comes to Russia’s actual case for war, almost no Americans — only 2 percent overall, according to a poll last week — believe Ukraine is governed by Nazis or that Ukraine started the war.
Yet this is the foreign government Trump has reached out to for important information — yet again.
When Trump praised Putin’s strategic “genius” on the eve of the Ukraine invasion, perhaps Republicans could dismiss it as Trump providing pragmatic analysis — even as Trump conspicuously declined to judge Putin morally, and even as that narrower analysis aged poorly. Instead of condemning Trump, GOP leaders offered their own condemnations of Putin. And some who tried to toe Trump’s line, in varying ways, later corrected course.
Trump, though, is still playing the hits. And the hits apparently include seeing just how long his party and supporters will tolerate his treating a man they hate as a legitimate political ally. Because, as always, the point is winning.