Whether Donald Trump is president for four years or eight, whatever history’s ultimate judgment of him is, and however he tries to explain it away, his remarks in Helsinki absolving Vladimir Putin of interference in the 2016 election will stand as the most surreal moment in 70 years of Russian-American relations, an ineradicable blot on the ledger of his presidency and maybe—just maybe—the most bizarre and troubling utterance by any chief executive in American history.
It is almost beside the point if Trump’s defense of Putin will have a lasting impact on his political fortunes—any more than the Access Hollywood tape, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his equivalence of white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville, or his forced separation of parents and children at the Mexico border seriously damaged his standing with the voters and Republican officials whose loyalty seems unswerving.
Each of those events was greeted to one degree or another as the end of the road, only to wind up as speed bumps. Trump’s comments on Russia are qualitatively and quantitatively different, and in the white-hot speed of the digital age are already guaranteed a permanent place in the history books. No less a self-styled student of the past than Newt Gingrich pronounced Trump’s performance the gravest mistake of his presidency. Former CIA Director John Brennan was moved to describe it as “nothing short of treasonous,” surely among the most inflammatory charges ever lodged against a sitting president by a former top government official since the age of dueling died out.