Several Trump advisers, especially George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, had extensive contacts with Russians, which they have attempted to downplay. The Trump Organization also claimed that it had cut off discussions about building a tower in Russia, when in fact it remained in close contact with Russian government officials about the project.
Before and after the election, Trump dismissed the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was interfering in U.S. politics. During the presidential transition, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who attended the June 2016 meeting), sought to set up a secret back channel with Russia that would bypass the federal government. Meanwhile, National-Security Adviser–designate Michael Flynn had conversations with the Russian ambassador, about which he lied to FBI agents and Vice President Mike Pence. Trump only fired Flynn when his lying was revealed in the press.
During a February 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump dismissed concerns about Putin killing dissidents and journalists. In May 2017, he abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, citing the Russia investigation as his motivation. The day after he fired Comey, he welcomed Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister to the White House—an arrangement that rattled some intelligence experts on its own—where he told them that firing the “nutjob” Comey had relieved “great pressure [on him] because of Russia.” Trump also disclosed sensitive classified information to the Russians.
During the summer of 2017, Trump continued to deny that Russia had interfered in the presidential election, despite a growing body of evidence. In July 2017, he met with Putin in Hamburg, with a tiny team of advisers; Trump greeted Putin warmly and, according to the Russians, Trump “accepted” Putin’s denials of election interference.
That meeting turned out to be only a warm-up for a disastrous meeting with Putin in Helsinki the following summer, in which Trump kowtowed to the Russian leader, openly took Putin’s side over U.S. intelligence on the interference issue, suggested allowing Russia to take part in the inquiry, and entertained allowing the Russians to question a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
David Frum: Why is Trump spouting Russian propaganda?
More recently, Trump regurgitated a strange and bogus Russian assertion that the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 to fight terrorists. According to the Times, the president has also discussed the idea of withdrawing the United States from NATO, which would effectively destroy the organization and fulfill one of Putin’s greatest desires in geopolitics.
Any of these specific incidents, and many others that I have omitted, might be individually explained away fairly easily. As a pattern, they’re too weird to dismiss with a shrug or cobbled-together explanations. On Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted a pair of arguments that President Barack Obama had behaved similarly when he told then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012 that he would have more “flexibility” after the election. That moment did indeed raise objections at the time, but it was notable in part because it conflicted with the Obama administration’s harder line toward the Kremlin. Trump’s indulgences toward Putin are part of a lengthy pattern, which is why they deserve, and have received, more scrutiny.
That, again, doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation. And it doesn’t mean that any of them are crimes. But the president is a politician, and he will be judged in the court of politics. The onus is not on the public to speculate about why Trump behaves so strangely with regard to Russia. It’s on Trump to explain it to the nation he was elected to serve.