Spare us the "What does Putin have on Trump" memes

When the Helsinki summit was unfolding yesterday, I was frankly so disheartened by the press conference that I wasn’t particularly inspired to write much about it. Besides, Ed and AP were both all over it as it was happening and there’s only so much room for hot takes in any given hour. But having watched the resultant media meltdown over the presser held by Presidents Trump and Putin, I’m seeing plenty of valid criticism, but also some overheated conspiracy theories which should be tossed out before they really catch fire.

First, allow me to opine that the summit (or meeting or whatever you like) was pretty much an unmitigated failure. I set forth some ideas on Sunday for how President Trump could have come away from that meeting with something resembling a win, but nothing along those lines emerged. Apparently, four hours of meetings produced nothing but an agreement to “reset” our relationship and cooperate on “mutually beneficial” goals, possibly including some strategic arms reductions. Was I the only one having nauseating flashbacks to Hillary Clinton and her “reset button” yesterday morning?

In any event, there was little to cheer for during the two leaders’ joint press conference. Positive sounding words, but nothing of real substance. And the optics of it were, to say the least, disconcerting.

I’ve seen some reports attempting to put a positive spin on the event, such as this one from Bill Gertz at the Free Beacon. Bill suggests that the summit could be “Trump’s bid to play the Russia card against the growing threat of China by building closer relations.” He also reiterates the President’s explanation that the meeting was, “a first step toward closer cooperation on counter-terrorism and halting the spread of nuclear arms.”

While I’m not declaring that this meeting represented the end of the Republic (which I actually heard from someone on cable TV this morning), I’m also not buying into the common explanation which seeks to portray this as Trump once again supposedly playing twelve-dimensional chess in some sort of brilliant scheme we’re all too dense to grasp. If nothing else, the optics of that press conference, as I mentioned above, were awful and the placing of blame on American troops as being somehow equally culpable in horrible crimes as the Russian intelligence service was too much to simply shrug off. Nothing of substance came out of that meeting, but Putin obviously came off looking like the more powerful leader.

But none of this means that we need to go the Full Scarborough here and leap to the conclusion that Donald Trump is being held hostage by Russia and that Putin has some dirt on him that he’s holding over his head. And yes… there are people saying that. This article at the Atlantic from David Frum puts forward the theory in a not terribly subtle way, and he opens with this accusation.

We still do not know what hold Vladimir Putin has upon President Trump, but the whole world has now witnessed the power of its grip.

I saw Joe Scarborough saying the same thing at the opening of his show on Monday and then again this morning. Joe is flatly stating that Putin “has something” in reserve that he’s holding over Trump’s head and essentially blackmailing him with. You’ll excuse me if I guffaw in your general direction.

Riddle me this, Batman. If Putin actually had some sort of dirt on Trump from before the election, as speculated by Frum and Scarborough, and he needed to keep Trump on a leash and doing his bidding, why would they put on this peacock display? The whole idea of having a Manchurian candidate is to keep that fact secret until you’re ready for the final assault. Would you walk out on stage and display that your pet was being obedient? That sort of deflates the subterfuge.

As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If somebody has the goods on this so-called blackmail arrangement, let’s see it. Otherwise, the explanation for this summit and its outcome falls back on Occam’s razor. It was just poor planning and bad political optics. The suggestion that Donald Trump is under the control of Russia and actively working against our national interests is a clear accusation of treason and other impeachable offenses. It changes the conversation from one of asking whether or not the White House policy toward Russia is inept or intentional sabotage. Those are very different things, and any journalists who want to make the jump into such territory should be ready to prove their claims if they hope to be taken seriously.