How to explain such behavior? That has become the question for nearly everyone perplexed by President Donald Trump's bizarre performance at Monday's joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And when put to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Or.) directly this week—Do you think Putin has something on Trump?—the senator responded calmly and simply: "I think it's likely. Yeah."
With a follow-up question in the interview, Buzzfeed's Ben Smith wanted to know if it could actually be the "pee tape"—a reference to an unconfirmed and selacious detail included in the so-called "Steel Dossier." To that specific question, Merkley once again responded calmly: "Something close to that. Something close to that."
Smith: "Your view is that the pee tape is real?"
Merkley: "Something close to that. Something close to that."
— Tom Namako (@TomNamako) July 16, 2018
As Aaron Blake, writing for the Washington Post on Tuesday, notes:
There was a time there when the Steele dossier's alleged, lewd tape of Donald Trump in a Moscow hotel room was Something We Didn't Talk About. Then James B. Comey made it not-so-taboo.
Now the broader idea that Russia has compromising information, or kompromat, on Trump has moved even more to the forefront. And it's all thanks to Trump's decision to hold a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and then practically bow to him.
Writing for The Week, columnist Ryan Cooper says Trump's performance in Helsinki has made it increasingly hard to locate any reasonable explanation for Trump's behaviour and rhetoric when it comes to Russia – specifically towards Putin.
"Despite the fact that much of the rest of the American security apparatus is still bitterly hostile to Russia, and the rest of the government has not taken many concrete pro-Russian actions," writes Cooper, "it is simply beyond question that Trump is really deferential to the Russian president. It could be blackmail, it could be ideological alignment, it could be payback for helping win the election, or it could just be the fact that Trump has had a giant crush on Putin for years and years (or some combination thereof). I suspect this is largely why Trump is being so disruptive towards NATO and the European Union — the latter of which he called a 'foe' before the summit."
No matter how you cut it, he added, this deference of Trump toward Putin is "a terrible development" for numerous reasons. As Robert Kuttner asked in a piece for The American Prospect on Tuesday, "What could possibly motivate an American president, who lashes out at Canada (Canada!) for a minor slight, to display such credulity when it comes to Russia?"
"What, indeed?" Kuttner continued. "We will soon find out, as the details of Robert Mueller’s investigation continue to unfold."
Could it be financial? On Tuesday, new demands went up for Trump to release his tax returns, a call that even some Republican lawmakers have joined.
— Tax March (@taxmarch) July 17, 2018
Strikingly, when Putin was asked rather directly if his government had any incriminating dirt of Trump, the Russian president gave an elaborate answer but ultimately did not deny it.
"It sounds like it's utter nonsense," Putin said of the idea that Russian operatives collected blackmail material from Trump's hotel room while he was in Moscow years ago.
Yeah. Sure. Maybe.