Maureen Dowd: Why does Trump insist on hugging Putin the menace?

Perhaps it’s an Oedipal thing, that Putin reminds Trump of his authoritarian father

I had dinner with Vladimir Putin once. He made me lose my appetite.

The then-fledgling president of Russia was polite and smiling at first with me and the other journalists present at the 21 Club.

But then Katie Couric asked about his bloodless behaviour in the wake of the Kursk submarine disaster in summer 2000, when the boat sank and all 118 on board were killed. She pressed him on why he didn't come back from vacation when all those Russian sailors were suffering and dying in the submarine at the bottom of the sea.

His face completely changed, almost as though he had ripped off a Mission: Impossible mask. Suddenly, he stared coldly at Couric, every inch the minacious KGB agent. He looked like Richard Widmark playing a psychotic thug in a 1950s film noir.


Just beneath the surface of the leader was a killer.

And thanks to the admonitions of his father, Donald Trump admires killers.

Trump hugging Putin even as Putin stabs at our democracy is an incomprehensible mystery.

Flummoxed and craven Republicans scramble to go along with a president who has turned the traditional heroes and villains of the GOP topsy-turvy, berating our European allies, Nato, the NFL, the FBI and the CIA, and canoodling with the mendacious and scheming Russians.

Perhaps it's an Oedipal thing, that Putin reminds Trump of his authoritarian father

On the eve of the Helsinki summit, which Trump has arranged as a very intimate pas de deux, it is still befuddling and alarming to watch him kowtow to Putin.

Maybe he is the Manchurian candidate, in need of a hypnotic tune-up. "Will Trump be meeting with his counterpart – or his handler?" Jonathan Chait asks in his New York cover story.

Perhaps it’s an Oedipal thing, that Putin reminds Trump of his authoritarian father. Possibly it’s blackmail or his fear of people suspecting that Russia saved his businesses.

Or maybe it is, as it so often is with Trump, the most puerile answer: he is affronted by the suggestion that he won his election illegitimately. This is, after all, a man who is still obsessing on the size of his inauguration crowd and how he won Wisconsin's electoral votes and Ronald Reagan didn't. (Except that Reagan did.)

So rather than accept the reality, laid out in detail by his own Justice Department, that we are in a dangerous cyberwar with Russia, the president did what he does best. The "Apricot Toddler", as he was dubbed in Britain, pounds the high chair, makes messes, pushes buttons, stage-manages cliffhangers and filigrees his "labyrinth of lies," as Jaron Lanier calls it.

Interesting timing

Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, gave an interestingly timed press conference on Friday that overshadowed Trump's moment with the queen – a split-screen situation that must have really steamed him. It was as though they were sending a message to Trump before his Putin meeting Monday: "We've got our eye on you."

Rosenstein said he briefed the president before Friday’s indictment of the 12 Russian agents – military officers who wouldn’t have made a move without Putin’s blessing. So if Trump got through his whole briefing, he would have been aware of this hair-raising fact: that on the same day in July 2016 that he publicly urged Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s “30,000 emails that are missing”, Russian hackers tried for the first time to break into her servers.

Even so, he was his usual blithe self about Russia in the news conference with Theresa May at Chequers. He knocked Robert Mueller's "rigged witch hunt" and said he would "firmly" ask Putin whether Russia meddled in our election, but that he doubted there would be any Perry Mason moment where Putin would break down and confess, saying: "Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me."

It's hard to believe that the British have found someone to despise more than they despise George W Bush and his poodle, Tony Blair

But there is no question for Putin any more. The question now is for Trump: what are you going to do about the Russian attack on the US?

Instead, as politicians on both sides of the aisle got increasingly nervous about the Helsinki rendezvous with perfidy, the White House put out a statement that was another masterpiece of idiocy designed to protect Trump's gossamer ego:

“There is no allegation in this indictment that Americans knew that they were corresponding with Russians. There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result.”

British satire

It's hard to believe that the British have found someone to despise more than they despise George W Bush and his poodle, Tony Blair. But they have. With their flair for satirical wit, they perfectly lampooned the loathed American president with "Trump Baby", a 19ft floating balloon in the shape of a wailing orange baby in a diaper holding a cellphone with Twitter on the screen.

There were duelling Trump babies – the real one and the blimp – when the president sucker-punched his hostess. Trump gave Rupert Murdoch's Sun an interview criticising prime minister May on Brexit, threatening her on trade, praising her rival, Boris Johnson, and throwing in some white nationalist dog whistles as clotted cream on the crumpet.

Ever the Ugliest American, Trump tried his own version of crazy damage control at the Chequers news conference, declaring his taped Sun interview fake news and buttering the battered May with belated praise.

It is up for debate whether Donald Trump will be a sad aberration in American history, a mere blip. But, thanks to the cheeky citizens of London, he will always be a blimp.

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd is a columnist with the New York Times