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The ‘Legitimacy’ Excuse for Trump’s Russia Coverup Is a Crock

In the wake of President Trump’s grotesque press conference in Helsinki on Monday, his loyalists are parroting a plainly disingenuous line of reasoning to excuse away his alignment with Vladimir Putin, over his own government, on the question of whether Russia sabotaged the 2016 election to help him win.

According to this spin, there’s nothing more nefarious at work here than Trump’s own ego. He can’t and won’t condemn Russia for subverting U.S. democracy because to do so would, at least in his own mind, undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.

And perhaps because the more straightforward explanations are too terrifying or inconvenient to contemplate, the mainstream media is parroting this line, or, worse, falling for it.

The people taken in by the argument describe it as the simplest and most elegant way to explain the Helsinki meltdown. The Occam’s razor of the Trump-Russia fiasco. In reality it is ludicrous and ahistoric, and doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.


We know to a near certainty Trump was aware Russians were committing crimes to assist his candidacy when it was happening in 2016. But even if he didn’t know who was behind the hacking and propaganda campaigns, even if he only learned the full truth after he won, legitimacy concerns can’t explain his post hoc covering for Russia, his covering for Russia in real time, and his continued subservience to Putin. Nor would doubts about the identities of the hackers spare his legitimacy in any way.

Russia was such a fixture within the Trump campaign that aides treated Russian efforts to help Trump win and meetings with Russians as routine matters. His son met with Russian agents in Trump Tower for dirt on Hillary Clinton. It beggars belief that Trump didn’t grasp the arrangement at the time. So if he’s claiming ignorance now, it’s because he’s lying, not because his mind can’t process threats to his legitimacy.

Likewise, whatever Trump knew, or didn’t know, his efforts to cover for Russia predate his election, and extend to matters unrelated to the campaign. He said the entity sabotaging Democrats might have been China or a 400-pound guy sitting in his bed in New Jersey. He called the international consensus that Putin shot down a civilian aircraft flying over Ukraine into question. “Putin and Russia say they didn’t do it, the other side said they did,” he insisted, “no one really knows who did it.” He didn’t do those things because of concerns about perceptions of the legitimacy of an election that hadn’t happened yet.


But we don’t need to look back to 2015 and 2016 to debunk the talking point, because it doesn’t make logical sense internally.

Trump should worry about how the public perceives his legitimacy, but not because it happened to be the Russians who engineered a conspiracy to help him win. Legitimacy concerns stem from the crimes that facilitated his victory, not from the fact that the criminals happened to be Russian or Chinese or a member of the alt-right.

And he obviously knew some entity was sabotaging the election on his behalf, because we all saw it happen, we all saw the emails, and the news coverage of the emails, and we all saw him revel in the intrusions on live television over and over again.

If legitimacy were really driving Trump’s behavior, he would be denying that Clinton and the Democrats were victims of any crimes whatsoever. He can’t do that, because he relished the crimes, and encouraged more of them, in public.

So why won’t Trump simply acknowledge the obvious? If his legitimacy is in doubt either way, why take an added hit by helping the culprits cover up and mislead the public about their crimes? It could be that Trump is grateful that Russia intervened on his behalf in the election, wants them to do it again, and doesn’t want to lose the advantage by condemning and discouraging Putin’s conduct. It could also be that Trump is trying to hide a corrupt and illegal quid pro quo, and believes that acknowledging the quid will expose the quo. It could be both things.

But it can’t be that he’s trying to bolster his own legitimacy. It’s a nonsequitur. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.