In October 1976, during a debate with Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford insisted, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and then defended that assessment before an incredulous media. This strange and obviously untrue depiction of Eastern Europe, then firmly under Soviet control, did not reinforce any preexisting perceptions about Ford, a sitting president who had handled world affairs and was a clear anti-Communist. Nonetheless, it was considered one of the most damaging gaffes in the history of presidential politics, remembered for years afterward.
Donald Trump said something eerily similar in an interview with George Stephanopoulos. Defending his campaign’s decision to remove a platform plank endorsing the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine, Trump said:
Trump: [Vladimir Putin]’s not going into Ukraine, okay?
Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right?
You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
Stephanopoulos: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?
Trump: Okay, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he’s going where — he takes — takes Crimea, he’s sort of — I mean …
This was an astonishing blunder — a major-party nominee insisting Russia’s leader would never invade a country whose territory he had already invaded and seized, then descending into word salad that would have embarrassed a flustered teenage beauty-pageant contestant. But the Trump campaign has blown apart the floor beneath the old standards of political discourse, and in the surreal new world we now inhabit, an answer that would have once triggered a crisis in his campaign is merely routine. It was no worse than the second-most-damaging thing Trump said on Sunday.
Trump’s bizarre insistence that Vladimir Putin would never invade the country he in fact invaded two years ago once again highlights one of the great curiosities of this campaign, which is the exact nature of Trump’s anomalously friendly posture toward Russia. It is compelling enough that it would dominate the agenda of a normal campaign. But the Russia question lies somewhat off to the side of the issue terrain that has polarized public opinion around Trump. Many of Trump’s supporters and opponents alike have still managed to more or less ignore it altogether.
Consider Hugh Hewitt’s column urging his fellow Republicans to support the nominee, despite his acknowledged flaws. The column proposes a number of remarkable arguments. Hewitt insists that a liberal Supreme Court majority would nullify the entire conservative agenda, a position he reiterates for emphasis: Conservatism “cannot survive a strong-willed liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Every issue, EVERY issue, will end up there, and the legislatures’ judgments will matter not a bit.” So, a liberal Court would overturn tax cuts? Obamacare repeal? More military spending? Cuts to Medicaid? Deregulation? Hewitt also argues, “Trump isn’t a racist. He is simply monumentally indifferent to the language of race.” So Trump’s repeated expressions of racism — even ones Republicans like Paul Ryan concede to be “the textbook definition of a racist comment” — don’t count because he expresses them through the use of language. It is hard to imagine what evidence of Trump’s racism Hewitt would accept as valid. If he was discovered to currently own slaves, perhaps. On the other hand, Hewitt would probably laud Trump for giving work opportunities to African-Americans, and explain to his audience that Trump had only forgotten to pay them, an understandable oversight for such a busy man.
But the most astonishing argument Hewitt makes for Trump is that “Hillary Clinton is thoroughly compromised by the Russians,” because Russia has hacked her emails, and thus, “Hillary is already a Putin pawn.”
On planet Earth, the evidence that Trump is compromised by Putin is vast. Trump and Putin have praised each other profusely. Putin’s propaganda apparatus, both domestically and abroad, is working wholesale to promote Trump. Trump’s campaign made a rare exertion to stop the platform from advocating defensive aid to Ukraine. He has expressed a willingness to recognize Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory, a position at odds with more than 100 countries that declared it illegal at the United Nations. He has repeatedly denigrated NATO and backed away from its commitment to defend fellow members against a Russian invasion. Several of his campaign staff are financially dependent on Russia. One them just denied that Russia seized Crimea. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, helped the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the outcome of Ukraine’s election. Today’s New York Times reports, in an eyebrow-raising passage at the very end of its story about Manafort, “It is not clear that Mr. Manafort’s work in Ukraine ended with his work with Mr. Trump’s campaign. A communications aide for Mr. Lyovochkin, who financed Mr. Manafort’s work, declined to say whether he was still on retainer or how much he had been paid.” Trump has publicly asked Russia to hack his opponent’s data.
This is very, very, very unusual. If you care at all about Russian influence in American politics, Trump is the most alarming candidate since Henry Wallace in 1948, and the most alarming major-party candidate in history by a huge margin.
It is also clear to reporters who follow the subject closely that Putin loathes Hillary Clinton. He loathes her so much that Russians have hacked into Democratic emails almost certainly so they can leak information damaging to her campaign and elect her ostentatiously pro-Russian opponent. A dove who is sympathetic to Russian policy could make a persuasive case for Trump. The notion that Russia hawks concerned about Russian influence should support the candidate Russia is trying to get elected, and oppose the candidate Russia is using every tool at its disposal to defeat, is beyond bizarre.