A martyoshka doll showing Donald Trump, U.S. president elect, left, sits beside a doll showing Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, dressed as a military pilot, in a souvenir store in Moscow, Russia (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Trump’s Russia Fixation Has a Simple Explanation

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s behavior in Helsinki was both appalling and perfectly in character. He was, as he has been before, gullible or worse about Vladimir Putin’s lies. He treated the U.S. and Russia, again, as morally equivalent.

He was unwilling or unable, once more, to respond to a foreign adversary’s interference in our politics in the manner one would expect from the leader of a self-respecting nation. He refused, yet another time, to credit the unanimous conclusion of our intelligence services.

A lot of Republicans, even ones who have typically been in Trump’s corner, are criticizing his performance. Others are trotting out the usual excuses — Barack Obama did something similar, Trump’s voters won’t care about it, all the rest of the ones you know by heart by now — but these responses sound a little tinnier than usual.

People who have long been convinced that Trump is a Russian agent decided that Trump’s abject posture toward Putin in Helsinki proves their theory. Two prominent Democrats hinted at that possibility. I think a less extravagant explanation is available.

The president has a long track record of admiring foreign dictators. He has long believed that treating America as a moral exemplar is an obstacle to diplomacy. And — probably most important — he thinks that any attention to Russian meddling in the 2016 election detracts from the glory of his victory.

That’s not the subtext of Trump’s remarks about Russia. It’s the text. At the press conference, a reporter asked Putin why Americans including Trump should believe his denials of interference in 2016. Trump answered it himself, by saying that “The concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win. ... We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president.”

His aides, speaking off the record and unhappily to reporters, are offering the same basic explanation: Trump cannot separate the question of Russian interference from the question of his own legitimacy. It is an inability he has in common with some of his critics.

But it ought to be possible to acknowledge all of the following truths at the same time: Hillary Clinton was a lousy candidate. Trump was a better one than a lot of people thought he would be. Americans cast their votes with free will, their votes were counted accurately, and the result under our electoral system was that Trump was duly elected. And Russia manipulated the flow of information, to the extent it could, to help Trump get elected.

Trump may well believe that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and that neither he nor his top aides cooperated with Russia’s illegal activity. (We already know that Donald Trump Jr., based on his own emails in advance of his meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, was willing to collude.) But the president cannot even bring himself to admit, in any sustained way, that Russia interfered at all.

Like so many of the worst features of this presidency, what happened in Helsinki has at its root the president’s deep character flaws — flaws that on this occasion have made him incapable of defending either the country’s interests or its honor.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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