Donald Trump assured Americans Thursday that he is not acting in covert concert with Vladimir Putin. "I have nothing to do with Russia," he said during his news conference, insisting, "The whole Russian thing, that's a ruse."
Those statements followed the firing of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after it was reported that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his pre-inauguration phone conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn's deception was notable because it suggested he had something to hide.
When BuzzFeed published a secret dossier on Trump that contained all sorts of disturbing allegations, the fear was that the Russian strongman had the means to blackmail the incoming president. But the salacious bits were so outlandish that they discredited the entire story.
Given his record, the fact that Trump denies something automatically raises strong suspicions that it's true. Maybe it's not. But here's the crucial question: If Trump were in fact being directed by Putin, would he be doing anything different from what he has done?
Trump has taken a friendlier and more optimistic view of the regime in Moscow than anyone in American politics. As a candidate, he welcomed Russia's military intervention in Syria on behalf of a vicious dictator. He said he would consider recognizing Russia's seizure of Crimea and lifting the sanctions imposed in response to it.
He bragged that Putin had called him "brilliant," and he extolled Putin as a stronger leader than Barack Obama. He invited the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton's email.
It's already hard to remember how bizarre this once would have seemed for any American politician — particularly a Republican and particularly a president. Distrust of Russia has been a bone-deep instinct among Republicans since Warren G. Harding's day. One of their most durable themes was that they were tougher and less gullible about Russia than the Democrats. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made their names as implacable foes of Soviet communism.
Trump had nothing obvious to gain during the campaign from offering a rosy view of Putin. The voters who proved decisive to his victory — working-class whites, particularly men — had no history of affection for the Kremlin; just the opposite.
There is nothing in conservative ideology that argues for overlooking the human rights abuses and state-dominated economy that characterize Putin's country; again, nothing could be less compatible. If a Democratic candidate had taken a similar posture five, 20 or 50 years ago, Republicans would have vilified him as a cowardly appeaser.
Nor does Trump's indulgent posture serve any obvious American interest. The United States doesn't help itself by excusing Putin's aggression against Ukraine, which could lead him to destabilize other pro-Western nations on his borders. Weakening NATO likewise would reduce our influence in Europe while ceding leverage to Russia.
The Trump record goes beyond mere statements. The New York Times recently reported that phone records indicate members of his campaign team "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." Trump has denied it, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed the campaign was in regular communication with his government.
U.S. intelligence agencies say the Kremlin was behind the hacking of computers at the Democratic National Committee. Flynn had been a regular guest on Putin's TV propaganda organ, RT.
Trump's first campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had done an abundance of business in Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got the Order of Friendship medal from Putin. And we know very little about Trump's personal business interests in Russia — which Donald Jr. once said were significant — because he won't release his tax returns.
He made it plain Thursday that he was angrier at the press for reporting Flynn's lie than he was at Flynn for lying. Trump didn't fire him for 17 days after learning about the deception — and Flynn would probably still be national security adviser if The Washington Post had not broken the story.
That lengthy and mysterious delay helps to explain why people inside the government leaked the information. Their fear was that Flynn's secret made one of the most important figures in the White House vulnerable to Russian extortion. Trump was aware of that concern but did nothing until the truth came to light.
At this point, the Kremlin could hardly ask for more than it's gotten from Trump. And if we can't tell from Trump's policies whether he's being blackmailed or being naive, maybe it doesn't matter. Either way, we lose.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.