There's been ample speculation for quite a while about whether Vladimir Putin's Russian government has compromising information on Donald Trump. And given the American president's antics, it's easy to understand why the questions persist: there has to be some kind of explanation for Trump's bizarre behavior.
But as loud as the speculation has been, it's nevertheless striking when a sitting U.S. senator -- and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- shared some candid thoughts on the subject. Consider what Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had to say this morning to BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith.
"What do you think of Trump's persistent, among other things, refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin? I mean do you think Vladimir Putin has anything on him?" Smith asked."I think it's likely, yeah," Merkley said.
When Smith pressed him to elaborate, the Oregon Democrat said, "It's a standard strategy of Russia when people visit there who are important to try to get compromising information on them, to set them up with hookers, to tape everything that goes on in their room."
The BuzzFeed chief asked soon after, "Just to put this in terms that the Twitter world can relate to, you think the pee tape is real?"
Pausing briefly, Merkley nodded and replied, "Something close to that, something close to that."
The senator isn't the only one on Capitol Hill thinking along these lines.
The Washington Post reported that Congress' top two Democrats held a joint news conference this afternoon -- which isn't altogether common for the party's leaders -- to raise related concerns.
"President Trump's weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "This is a sad day for America, and for all Western democracies that Putin continues to target."Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was less direct but raised the same prospect in a statement issued shortly after Trump and Putin concluded a remarkable news conference in Helsinki at the end of a summit that both said included discussion of Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
"Starting with the president's trip to NATO and ending with his shameful performance at today's press conference, President Trump has strengthened our adversaries while weakening our defenses and those of our allies," Schumer's written statement read. "A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: what could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump."
After today's press conference in Helsinki, this speculation is only going to intensify.
Postscript: For the record, a reporter asked Vladimir Putin this morning if he had incriminating evidence against Trump. The Russian president laughed, as if the question were absurd, but he didn't quite get around to giving a direct answer.