On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump woke up thinking about Russia.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!,” Trump tweeted at 7:25 a.m. “Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!”
A half hour later, the White House announced that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Helsinki, Finland on July 16.
But coincidence or not, the twin events of Thursday morning serve as a very important reminder: Donald Trump (still) appears to not believe that Russia not only actively interfered in the 2016 election but did so with the express goal of helping Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton.
That is, of course, the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community. And of virtually every elected official – Republican or Democrat – in the country. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in February.
And, kind of, Donald Trump too. “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer,’” Trump tweeted in February. “The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!”
That isn’t accurate. Not even close.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters of Putin last fall.
“I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not,’” Trump said of a conversation with Putin last summer. “I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not.”
Wrote CNN’s Sara Murray and Jeremy Herb in February: “Trump has been skeptical about the intelligence assessment that Russia meddled ever since he was first briefed on the issue during the presidential transition. But that skepticism has endured even after Trump hand-selected his own intel chiefs and they reiterated the conclusions of their predecessors.”
How? Why? The answer, I think, is simple: Trump conflates Russian interference in the 2016 election with the idea that his campaign colluded with the Russians. He cannot separate the two in his mind – although they are quite clearly different things and one can easily understand that both need not be true. He is willing to accept Putin’s denials, despite what the intelligence community has told him, because he wants to believe that the entire Russia story – from meddling through collusion – is, well, trumped up.
The Point: Trump’s repeated assertions that he believes Putin’s denial of involvement in the 2016 election are, on their face, hard to believe. There is ample evidence to suggest that Russia conducted a broad and deep campaign of disinformation and persuasion designed to aid Trump and hurt Clinton. And that they will seek to meddle in future elections. And yet, in the face of all of that evidence, Trump chooses to believe Putin’s unsubstantiated denials.