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On collusion with Russia, Trump's rhetoric takes a desperate turn

Facing questions about collusion with Russia, Donald Trump isn't just under pressure. He's also increasingly desperate.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a point as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York, June 16, 2015. (Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a point as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York, June 16, 2015. 

Donald Trump spoke to the New York Times on Friday for 30 minutes. Over the course of the half-hour, the president said there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia 16 times -- as if Trump had some kind of nervous tick he simply couldn't get under control.

Indeed, the president wasn't just desperate to deny what seems plainly true; he also seemed eager to create an alternate reality in which he's already been exonerated by Democrats. "Virtually every Democrat has said there is no collusion.... I saw Dianne Feinstein the other day on television saying there is no collusion," he said of California's senior senator. "She's the head of the [Senate Intelligence Committee]."

In other words, the president seems convinced of the legitimacy of his alternate reality, to the point that he believes others have embraced it, too. The trouble, of course, is that literally zero Democrats have drawn this conclusion; he's misquoting Dianne Feinstein; and she's not even the chair of the committee.

But instead of rehashing the painfully obvious evidence pointing to collusion between Trump World and Russia, I wanted to highlight something else the president said in the interview that jumped out at me.

"I actually think it's turning to the Democrats because there was collusion on behalf of the Democrats. There was collusion with the Russians and the Democrats. A lot of collusion. [...]"There was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats."

The Washington Post  described this as "a breathtakingly false statement," which seems more than fair.

What I find especially amazing about all of this is Trump's I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I instincts. As regular readers may recall, during the 2016 campaign, whenever Hillary Clinton would criticize Donald Trump, it was a near certainty that Trump would then made the identical accusation against Clinton. After a while, this got a little creepy.

Clinton accused Trump of being unstable and reckless, so Trump said Clinton is “unstable” and “reckless.” Clinton said Trump mistreated women, so Trump said Clinton mistreated women. Clinton accused Trump of bigotry, so Trump said Clinton’s a “bigot.” Clinton questioned Trump’s temperament, so Trump said Clinton had a bad “temperament.” Clinton said Trump makes a poor role model for children, so Trump said Clinton sets “a terrible example for my son and the children in this country.”

And, of course, Clinton accused Trump of being a “puppet” for his allies in Moscow during a 2016 debate. Trump, showing all of the sophistication of a slow toddler, responded, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet. No, you’re the puppet.”

This pattern of projection, in which Trump assigns some of his worst qualities onto those who criticize him, wasn’t just a campaign tactic. It’s also a staple of his presidency. Indeed, at various times in 2017, as evidence of cooperation between his political operation and Russia has become more obvious, Trump has responded to the news by accusing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Democrats in general of colluding with Russia.

In June, after one of the president's more absurd accusations, a reporter asked then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer what proof Trump has of Obama colluding with Russia. The president's spokesperson responded at the time, "I think it comes back to this idea that they've been very clear, they've been playing this card about blaming Trump and Russia. And yet, at the same time, they were the ones who, according to this report, knew about it and didn't take any action."

In reality, Obama administration officials tried to take action, and turned to congressional Republicans for support, but GOP leaders refused. But even putting that aside, if knowing about Russian intervention and failing to take action is Trump World's standard for "collusion," the president's team has a real problem on its hands.