There's been a steady evolution to the Russia scandal over the course of several months, featuring questions that have incrementally advanced the story. We start with the root question -- "Did Vladimir Putin's government attack the U.S. election?" -- which serves as a foundation for everything that follows.
Did Russian officials attack? Yes. Did they intervene to help put Donald Trump in power? Yes. Was Trump's campaign in communications with Russia during the espionage operation? Yes. Was Trump's campaign willing and eager to cooperate with Russia's scheme? Yes. Will the president or anyone in his operation face any consequences? Stay tuned.
But it's against this backdrop that Trump has a bad habit: he struggles to keep up, at times going backwards to re-ask questions that were answered months ago. Last week, the Republican beneficiary of Russian intervention belittled his own intelligence agencies and insisted "nobody really knows" if Russia was responsible for the attack in the first place.
This week, the president sat down with radical TV preacher Pat Robertson and again tried to raise doubts about a key detail that every honest observer already knows to be true.
He thinks Putin would actually have been happier with Hillary Clinton in the White House because he's building the U.S. military and working to export U.S. energy, which Russia opposes."We are the most powerful country in the world and we are getting more and more powerful because I'm a big military person. As an example, if Hillary had won, our military would be decimated. Our energy would be much more expensive. That's what Putin doesn't like about me. And that's why I say, why would he want me? Because from day one I wanted a strong military, he doesn't want to see that," Trump told Robertson.
The president added, "So what I keep hearing about that [Putin] would have rather had Trump, I think probably not."
This is bizarre nonsense, even by Trump standards.
Let's put aside some of the more ridiculous parts of the argument -- there's no sane reason to believe, for example, a Clinton administration would "decimate" the U.S. military or raise energy prices -- and instead explain what the president doesn't appear to understand.
Putin hated Clinton. The Russian autocrat, according to intelligence reports that Trump has already been shown, believed Clinton would keep and possibly strengthen economic sanctions, which is one of the reasons the Kremlin was so eager to help support her 2016 rival.
The president asked Robertson, "Why would he want me?" If we assume the question wasn't rhetorical, it may have something to do with Trump trying to weaken sanctions, isolate the United States diplomatically, fracture Western alliances, diminish the influence of the State Department (which is now led by Putin's closest American ally), and ignore Russia's attack on the U.S. elections -- all of which serve Moscow's strategic goals.
Maybe Trump understands all of this. It's possible he's playing dumb because he's embarrassed that it took foreign intervention to help him win the election and he's scared that the Russia scandal poses an existential threat to his presidency. Or maybe Trump isn't pretending and he's genuinely clueless about the core details of the ongoing controversy.
Either way, to argue that Putin preferred Clinton is bonkers. If Trump has any doubts, he can read his son's publicly released emails -- which document the fact that last summer his son Donald, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort accepted without question that the Russian government not only wanted him to win but would help him in that endeavor.