Trump and Putin shaking hands
Credit: Shealah Craighead/Flickr

Recent news stories in the New York Timesthat the FBI investigated “whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence”–and the Post–that Trump has “gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin”–have once again attracted the attention of America’s hard-bitten, gumshoe anti-Trump pundits, with their trench coat collars up and fedoras low.

This is the sort of reporting that has helped pay pundits’ bills since November 8, 2016: just enough details to raise the prospect of President Trump being a Russian agent, or having conspired with the Russians to swing the 2016 election, but not nearly enough to definitively prove it. This has had the beneficial consequence of bringing back readers, who likely think that the next story will, at long last, have the “smoking gun” that will effectively invalidate the 2016 election.

This is a narrative that takes direct aim at Trump’s legitimacy, and he obviously recognizes it as such. Any president combating that kind of narrative would do everything in his or her power to quash it. It seems to me that what is often held up as further evidence of a deep conspiracy–like Trump going to  “extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin”–is more easily explained as the behavior of someone who is trying to put out the flames licking at his presidency. More likely, it is the behavior of a president who fears that individuals in his own administration would leak things that would only further reinforce the media narrative. Given the industrial scale of damaging leaks from White House officials over the past two years, who can blame him?

The Post’s Aaron Blake, responding to the FBI inquiry story, offered this thought:

There are, of course, simpler explanations to all of this than the idea that Trump was working for Russia. Perhaps he truly admires Putin’s leadership style — which very much fits with his expressed admiration and work with other authoritarian leaders. It has been clear that Trump wanted to do business in Russia, so he seemed to be positively predisposed toward the country. And his efforts to hamper the Russia investigation needn’t be about any secret pro-Russia agenda; it’s also quite logical to think Trump simply views the whole thing as casting a pall over his election and raising concerns about the legitimacy of his presidency. Even if Trump unjustly attempted to obstruct the investigation, that doesn’t mean he was necessarily doing it for Russia. In fact, Russia would seem to have less to gain from such obstruction than Trump would.

More of this groundedness would benefit some pundits who see conspiracy in every news story — and would benefit some Democrats who are threatening the exact thing that would revive this moribund presidency: impeachment without commensurate evidence.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at