President Vladimir Putin of Russia is manipulating President Trump.
That's the only rational way to understand Trump's comments Saturday, in which he defended Putin's denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"He said he didn’t meddle, I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did." Trump continued, "Every time he sees me he says, I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country."
The most concerning quote is the "I really believe" line. After all, if Putin can convince Trump of the exact opposite of what Trump's own intelligence community is telling him, he can probably convince Trump of anything.
While Trump dialed back his comments on Sunday, claiming that he supports the U.S. intelligence community, the damage has already been done.
Trump obviously likes Putin and is inclined to believe his assertions.
And that's a problem, because Putin is a master manipulator and because the Russian leader's interests fundamentally diverge from America's.
On the first count, Putin's manipulation skills flow from his former experience as a KGB officer. Shaped by his training and years in the field, Putin revels in identifying avenues of manipulation and then exploiting them relentlessly. At home, the Russian president used his training to gain power and consolidate his unchallenged rule. Abroad, Putin's craft has allowed him to manipulate both Barack Obama (the reset/MH-17) and George W. Bush ("a sense of his soul"). It took those American presidents years to realize who they were dealing with.
Putin was always going to try and do the same with Trump.
Prior to Trump's first meeting with Putin in July, I warned that Putin would attempt to manipulate the new president by offering him a fake deal like a cease-fire in Ukraine or Syria. The next day, Putin did just that and gave Trump a fake victory and himself a foot in the White House door.
Yet the real issue here is not Putin's manipulation, but how Putin uses manipulation to undercut American interests. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to Ukraine, Syria, Europe, and even basic U.S. stability, Putin wants the opposite of what American wants. Where we seek longer-term stability and the democratic rule of law, Putin seeks destabilization and patronage networks.
In turn, Trump is deluding himself with messages like this one.
When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics - bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Unfortunately, it's not just Putin who is manipulating Trump at the moment. In Beijing, last week, China appeared to successfully seduce Trump with simple pageantry.
Still, where Trump is at least authorizing some counterbalancing actions towards China, that's not the case with Russia. When it comes to checking Putin's aggression, the Trump administration hasn't even implemented congressionally mandated sanctions.
What's most odd about Trump's positioning, however, is how little Putin seems to have done to earn it. On the contrary, it was just three months ago that Putin's right-hand man, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev openly insulted Trump for his "total weakness."
Had another foreign government done this, you would have expected Trump to react immediately. But he didn't and what has followed explains where we are.
And where we are is with Putin in the geopolitical driving seat.