Politically speaking, Trump’s devotion to his pro-Putin line doesn’t make sense. Yes, the GOP base is impressionable, and perhaps Republican voters would accept it if Trump came out and said, “You bet, Russia helped get me elected, and wasn’t that a good thing? We couldn’t let Crooked Hillary win!” But nobody would say his odd solicitousness toward the Kremlin leader is a political winner, and it certainly causes an unnecessary amount of friction with Republicans in Congress. He’s kept it up at great political cost to himself, and that suggest either that he is possessed by an anomalous level of conviction on this one issue, despite his extraordinary malleability on everything else—or that he’s beholden to Putin in some way.
You don’t have to buy Jonathan Chait’s sleeper agent theory of Trump to believe that something is deeply weird about all this. Nor do you need to be convinced that Putin is hanging onto a recording of something untoward that may have taken place in a certain Moscow hotel room. You don’t even have to buy the theory that Trump’s business is overly dependent on illicit flows of Russia money, giving Putin leverage. As Julia Ioffe posits, the kompromat could well be the mere fact of the Russian election meddling itself.