Once again, the President of the United States is saying publicly that he believes the word of Vladimir Putin over that of the U.S. intelligence services and multiple bipartisan investigations:
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew from Da Nang to Hanoi in Vietnam. Trump spoke to Putin three times on the sidelines of summit here, where the Russia meddling issue arose.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
The temptation here is to avoid constructive criticism or analysis and just start shouting expletives. But in the interest of professional decency, let’s calmly state the obvious:
1) The president should not be openly questioning the findings of his own intelligence community.
2) The president should not be asking the Russian president if he meddled in the election, which makes him look stupid. He should be making demands and taking diplomatic and financial retaliatory action, and making threats of further actions should the meddling continue.
3) The president should not be defending himself to the press by saying “hey, I asked him. What more do you want?”
4) The president should not be appeared to pussyfoot about Vladimir Putin when there is an impeachment-level investigation and scandal over his collusion with Russia over its meddling in the election.
But does this really need to be said? Of course not. What’s more worth analyzing is why Trump is behaving so stupidly, so publicly.
The most obvious answer is simply that Trump likes Vladimir Putin and doesn’t want to upset him, or that the Russian president has blackmail goods on Trump. But that would only explain soft-pedaling on Russia issues behind the scenes. Trump doesn’t need to publicly look like a credulous fool in front of world reporters to keep Putin happy.
The other frequent response to Trump’s bizarre behavior is that he is trying to please his base for domestic political reasons. But that doesn’t fly here, either. Trump has been shedding public approval over the Russia fiasco, and while his hardcore base may not care about the Russia story, they also (outside of a radical contingent) aren’t deeply invested in Putin.
The real answer seems to be that Donald Trump really is as naive as he appears to be. If Putin tells him he didn’t meddle, he believes him. If reporters ask him about it, he says what’s on his mind.
That shouldn’t make us feel any better about it. The President of the United States isn’t just a complicit tool of Russian plutocratic white supremacist influence. He’s an unwitting one as well.