Opinion: We're missing something big in the Trump-Putin relationship

Donald Trump's response to Russian interference in our 2016 election is deeply troubling because based on what we know, it simply makes no sense.  Something else, something unknown, must be in play to explain how he is reacting.

Let me explain:

In the wake of Friday's classified intelligence briefing, Trump has stepped up his claims that even if Vladimir Putin did try to intervene, it made no difference in the outcome. That part of his argument I understand perfectly. I don't agree with it, but it at least makes sense. By claiming that he would have won anyway, Trump is merely defending the legitimacy of his victory and his presidency.

That's perfectly natural, and probably wise. Whether it's true is another matter entirely.

We will never be able to accurately quantify what impact the Russian leaks had upon the campaign. But we know for a fact that while the campaign was being fought, Trump treated the hacked material as electoral gold. He referenced it constantly, in almost every speech, using it in an effort to drive a wedge between Hillary Clinton and the Bernie Sanders voters. He also repeatedly, obsessively brought up the transcripts of Clinton's paid speeches, which were also part of the hacked material. He clearly believed that material was very useful to him, to the point that he publicly begged Russia to produce even more.

The same is true of the right-wing media. They may be claiming now that the hacked material played no role in Trump's victory, but during the campaign itself they were enthusiastic, aggressive purveyors of that very same information. Their actions then, in the heat of battle, speak more powerfully than their disclaimers now.

But again, from Trump's point of view, making such a claim makes a lot of sense even if it isn't accurate. Any politician in that kind of situation would make the same argument.

Here's the part that doesn't make sense, and that troubles me:

The simplest, most politically effective strategy for dealing with this controversy would be for Trump to continue to claim the hacking did not alter the election's result, while also strongly condemning Russia and Putin for making the effort to do so. There would be no conflict between those two lines of argument. In fact, they would reinforce each other.

By forcefully condemning Russia's actions and warning Putin to never take such action again, the president-elect of the United States would be seen as defending the United States, as a president-elect should. By publicly backing President Obama's decision to oust 35 Russian diplomats as punishment, for example, Trump would put politically useful distance between himself and Putin and ease concerns even among some in his own party about the nature of his relationship with Moscow.

Yet as illustrated by the tweet above -- published Saturday morning -- he refuses to do so. In fact, I am not aware of a single instance in which Trump has ever criticized Putin for anything, which is remarkable given Putin's record and Trump's penchant for insult.

In the declassified version of the intelligence report released Friday, the American spy community may have offered us a hint of its own theory on the question. In laying out its case for why Putin tried to elect Trump, the report notes the following:

"Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder."

That's a fascinating, action-packed sentence. Berlusconi and Putin are close friends and have often vacationed and partied together. Secret diplomatic cables released back in 2010 -- ironically, through Wikileaks -- revealed allegations that "Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia."

According to a leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Rome:

Distressingly, Berlusconi treats Russia policy as he does his domestic political affairs --- tactically and day-to-day. His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin's good graces, and he has frequently voiced opinions and declarations that have been passed to him directly by Putin. One such example: in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, Berlusconi began (and continues) to insist that Georgia was the aggressor and that the (government of Georgia) was responsible for several hundred civilian deaths in South Ossetia."

Schroeder is also a close friend of Putin, whom he has called "a flawless democrat." In 2014, Putin threw a lavish 70th birthday party for Schroeder in St. Petersburg.  And when Schroeder lost his 2005 bid for re-election as chancellor, Putin rewarded him by arranging to name him chairman of the board of a pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to Germany.

So, do business concerns explain Trump's odd behavior? I do not know. I do know that the CIA, FBI and NSA would not cavalierly or accidentally drop such a comparison into a high-profile declassified intelligence report concerning an incoming American president. I also know that Trump has refused to release his tax returns and other data that would make his business dealings at least somewhat transparent.

Most important, I know that by stubbornly refusing to condemn and punish Putin's intervention, Trump is doing serious and ongoing political damage to himself. And that's inexplicable, because Rule No. 1 for Trump is that he always looks out for himself first.