Donald Trump hasn't even finished the first full month of his presidency, and his administration is already reeling under a very serious crisis. At issue is potential collusion with Russia during and after the campaign, which felled his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, when it was reported that he lied to Vice President Pence about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office. The scandal became a full-blown media feeding frenzy when The New York Times reported leaks from intelligence officials alleging that the Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian sources even before the election.
As has become a signature feature of the Trump presidency, it is extremely difficult to figure out just what exactly has happened, and whom to trust. All the reporting thus far has had zero on-the-record sources, no actual classified documents, and only alleges contact between the Trump team and Russian sources, not actual collusion. It seems as much a proxy war between the security apparatus and the elected president as it does a story of actual wrongdoing (though of course both can be true).
But politically, Trump is reeling, by reason of his big mouth. Perhaps for the first time, his total lack of professionalism and self-censorship is costing him big league.
So-far sketchy evidence of Trump's campaign colluding with Russia slots right into a narrative that Trump himself created. In July of last year, his campaign lobbied successfully to remove an anti-Russia plank from the 2016 Republican platform; he then directly asked Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's emails. During the debates, he repeatedly scorned the idea that Russia was behind hacks of Clinton's emails, despite being briefed that it was.
After winning the election, Trump spoke favorably of relaxing sanctions on Russia, appointed Michael Flynn (who is notably sympathetic to Russia and once attended a dinner at which he sat right next to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself) as national security adviser, and tapped Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. Tillerson, of course, was CEO of ExxonMobil, a company with billions in oil leases in Russia locked up behind sanctions.
Throughout all this, Trump has lavished glowing personal praise on Putin (a trend which actually started years before the campaign). Among many, many examples, he boasted about befriending Putin backstage at a 60 Minutes interview, said that Putin was "a leader far more than [President Obama] has been," and has repeatedly downplayed Putin's authoritarian tendencies (like how his political opponents end up murdered).
Now, many conservative media sources have long had a huge crush on Putin precisely because he is an authoritarian strongman. It could be that Trump was just following the general line of right-wing propaganda and opportunistically lauding developments that helped him politically ("I love WikiLeaks!" he said in October).
But it would be hard to imagine a story better designed to confirm an allegation that Trump is working hand-in-glove with the Russians. Like everything Trump, it's loud, hamfisted, and the letters are 10 feet tall.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
As a result, many are treating the allegation very seriously, and Trump has no one to blame but himself.
Of course, one cannot take this on faith. It would be tremendously bad for the president to be working on behalf of any foreign power, much less a merciless quasi-dictator like Putin — but on the other hand, the security apparatus has its own agenda, which almost certainly does not line up with democratic values.
Therefore, an investigation is needed to root out what exactly happened. Flynn must be called to testify before Congress under oath, and the intelligence oversight committees must begin an immediate examination of the intelligence data on Trump-Russia connections.
Only the truth of the matter can cut through the fog of paranoia and partisanship. We can't just take anonymous spies' word for it.