I believe that Trump’s behavior toward Putin is over-determined. That is, there are multiple causes which could, on their own, explain Trump’s extraordinary behavior toward Russia — and that matters when it comes to interpreting the meaning of this moment.
The most exciting theory for many critics of the president is the idea that Putin has “kompromat” on Trump — some damning evidence of a misdeed so enormous that it could ruin his presidency — and that Trump feels obligated to cater to Putin in order to prevent its release. Whether a salacious pee tape or some kind of document showing high-level collusion traceable to Trump, in this theory Trump is willing to serve as Putin’s puppet to ensure his own political survival.
But there are also other explanations for Trump’s pro-Moscow orientation. The biggest one is probably that he considers claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to be a blow to his mandate and credibility — Trump is obsessed with eliminating any notion that he didn’t win the election all by himself. By downplaying Russian interference, he protects the legitimacy of his victory.
The fact that he goes about this by undermining the assessments of his own intelligence services lays bare another potential motive. Trump has a political interest in damaging the authority of the intelligence community that’s probing his ties to Russia. By making the intelligence community look fallible or wrongheaded, he weakens the Mueller probe’s credibility among his supporters.
There are other factors as well: Trump has business ties to Russia and has sought to build a Trump Tower there in the past — it’s possible that he sees warming ties with Putin as a long-term business play. During his career he has demonstrated a more sustained interest in his own wealth and power than geopolitics.
Trump also has a cultural affinity for Russia. There are parallels between the look of some of his grandiose properties and stereotypical Russian aesthetics. He appears to love Eastern European women. He shares Putin’s Islamophobia and machismo. And Trump has an obvious admiration for authoritarian strongmen from Xi Jinping to Recep Tayyip Erdogan — he is impressed by men who seem to have a strong grip on power in their countries. Striking deals with these leaders and aligning with their worldview holds allure for him.
And lastly, there is of course the do-it-to-spite-the-mainstream-media impulse.
Trying to figure out why Trump is doing what he does is often a fool’s errand. But it does matter that there are a range of possible motives for his behavior. Many of Trump’s critics see his deference to Putin as the most telling sign that he’s got something to hide, and then paint him as Putin’s lapdog. But if Trump isn’t actually motivated by kompromat, then he’s not really being manipulated — he’s deliberately trying to align the US with Russia, or least has few qualms about making concessions to Russian interests.
This is all a long-winded way of saying don’t assume that Trump’s pro-Russia behavior is proof that Trump is guiltier than we have evidence of. There are plenty of reasons to believe he’s acting of his own volition.