Opinion: What is going on with Trump and Russia?

Last year, private citizen Mike Flynn -- before he became Mike Flynn, national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump -- held multiple conversations with Russia's ambassador about the future of economic sanctions imposed on Russia. The effect of those illicit conversations -- which were taped by U.S. intelligence, transcribed and are now being leaked -- was to undermine U.S. attempts to punish Russia for meddling in our elections.

In those conversations, Flynn also reportedly urged Russia not to retaliate after the Obama administration ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, suggesting that better days were ahead.  Surprise surprise, that's exactly the course that Vladimir Putin chose to take. It's almost as if Putin had known something, as if he was acting on inside assurances.

“We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats,” a smug Putin announced the day after Flynn's conversation, casting himself as the magnanimous leader at America's expense. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.” Putin even invited the children of U.S. diplomats to “the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin.”

To which Trump responded:

Think about that: Russia helps Trump get elected, a conclusion that is backed by professionals at all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. When Russia then gets punished for its attack on our system, a top Trump associate reaches out to undermine that punishment. Together, Russian leaders and Trump associates secretly coordinate a response, which President-elect Trump then publicly celebrates.

But wait, it gets worse. When news broke back in December that Flynn had had as many as five conversations with the Russian ambassador in a single day, Flynn lied, point-blank, to the American people about the nature and content of those conversations. He claimed that the topic of sanctions had never been mentioned and that the sole purpose of the calls had been to set up post-inaugural contacts.

Other top Trump officials, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, then knowingly or unknowingly repeated Flynn's lies. As recently as Wednesday, in fact, Flynn was still denying point blank that he and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had discussed sanctions.

By Thursday, when it became apparent that the truth was about to break, Flynn came down with an extremely sudden onset of amnesia, saying that he no longer had a clear recollection of what had happened in those December conversations. (A reading of the transcripts could surely refresh his memory.)

And of course, this hasn't happened in isolation. It is a continuation of a damning pattern of behavior in which the Russians help Trump and Trump helps the Russians. In an interview just last week, when Bill O'Reilly of Fox News pointed out to Trump that his buddy Putin is a cold killer whose political opponents are poisoned, shot, beaten to death or vanish into thin air, Trump brushed it all aside.

“Lot of killers,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent? You think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump was then asked about Russia's continued military assault on neighboring Ukraine, and once again he sounded more like a Kremlin mouthpiece than a president of the United States. He echoed Moscow's denial that Russia had any control over the forces that are attacking Ukraine, forces that are using Russian tanks and Russian missiles and Russian military communications and Russian military personnel, with supply lines also based in Russia.

“We don’t know, are they uncontrollable?" Trump asked. "Are they uncontrolled? That happens also. We’re going to find out; I would be surprised, but we’ll see.”

It's truly, truly bizarre. It's bizarre to believe that a dictator such as Putin doesn't have complete control over what is happening in Ukraine. It is bizarre to propose a moral equivalence between the far-from-perfect actions of the United States and the murderous, thuggish predations of Putin and his KGB kleptocracy. It is bizarre to watch Trump pick fights with the leaders of Australia, Mexico, Germany and France, among others, yet find it impossible to say a critical word about the likes of Putin. It is bizarre that Russia could have meddled in our election and pay almost no price for it.

And it is certainly bizarre to watch Republican leaders in Washington avert their eyes and pretend not to see.