In the wake of the global fallout from the Debacle in Helsinki, it must be asked yet again -- yes, yet again -- what Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump.
What was once viewed as conspiratorial fringe talk has entered the mainstream, which should not be surprising when you realize that Trump has remained on the defensive and uncharacteristically timid when it comes to America's historic post-World War II foe as since he first began praising Putin well before he became a presidential candidate.
This is not merely a weak man's fascination with a strong man, which is true enough but does not go far enough because Trump's groveling at the summit was in stark contrast to his fire-and-brimstone remarks about NATO, British Prime Minister Theresa May, his own Justice Department and Robert Mueller and the FBI in the hours before he sat down with the Russian leader.
I am by no means the first observer to suggest that if Trump wanted to combat the kompromat story line, to use Russian term for compromising material, it would be easy.
Instead, "America's child president had a play date with a KGB alumnus," in conservative columnist George Will's acid-dipped words. He held a two-hour, closed-door meeting with the former spy agency boss and, throwing out his own advisers' get-tough briefing book and provoking worldwide scorn, repeatedly declined to not only press him on the 2016 election interference that greased the skids for his improbable victory, but said he believes Putin's hugely unbelievable denials.
Which of course are part and parcel of the Russian leader's goal of destabilizing the U.S. by knocking it from its sole superpower perch, as well as compromising its Western allies. No wonder Putin kept smirking during the post-summit press conference. And yes, at one point Trump did wink at him.
Back in Washington on Tuesday, Trump predictably shifted into full defensive mode after a meeting with top national security officials, disingenuously claiming he misspoke and meant to say "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia" behind election meddling while acknowledging for the first time that the election was attacked by Moscow. Putin, of course, was not in the room.
The walkback from the walkback got off with a bang on Wednesday when Trump offered a fresh defense, tweeting that his widely criticized post-summit news conference actually was appreciated by "many people at the higher ends of intelligence." Later, contradicting his own intelligence chief, he said Russia was not targeting the U.S., then the White House walked back on that. And then adding still more confusion, he said in an interview on "CBS Evening News" that he had been firm with Putin, telling him "We're not going to have it [interference], and that's the way it’s going to be."
Meanwhile, the kompromat could be any number of things, from financial dealings to hard evidence of collusion, but the hands-down favorite is the infamous Pee Tape, which is said to have been recorded while Trump was attending his Miss America Pageant in Moscow in November 2013.
Indeed, one of the enduring mysteries of the Russia scandal is what happened -- or did not happen -- in the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on November 8 and 9, 2013. Was Trump secretly videotaped cavorting with urinating prostitutes by the FSB, the Russian security service, to use for blackmail as is explosively claimed in the Christopher Steele dossier?
Keith Schiller, Trump's former long-time bodyguard and go-between for Trump's liaisons with Stormy Daniels and other women with whom he has had affairs, would later tell congressional investigators that a Russian approached Trump's party after a brief meeting with Miss Universe executives on the morning of November 8 with an offer: The Russian wanted to send five women to Trump's hotel room that night. Schiller said he didn’t take the offer seriously and told the Russian, "We don’t do that type of stuff."
At about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, November 9, Trump returned to the Ritz-Carlton. According to Schiller, on the way to the hotel he told Trump about the earlier offer of women, and he said he and Trump laughed about it. According to Schiller's account, after Trump was in his room, he stood guard outside for a while and then left to go to bed, but significantly could not say what happened during the rest of the night.
The Steele dossier purports to tell what did happen.
In the first of the 20 confidential memos that Steele, a former British MI6 spy provided to Fusion GPS that make up his dossier, he concluded based on his sources that Moscow had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for years and had information on him, including the Pee Tape, that could be used as kompromat in blackmailing him.
Steele writes that a source who was present in the presidential suite says that Trump employed "a number of prostitutes to perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him" as a way of defiling the bed in which Barack and Michelle Obama had slept on an official visit in 2009. The source told Steele that hotel employees had corroborated the incident.
All of this might not particularly matter had not Trump himself been so obsessed with a salacious incident he has repeatedly claimed did not happen.
A redacted and declassified 15-page version of seven memos written by then-FBI Director Comey after meetings and conversations with Trump because of his concern that the president would later try to distort what they had discussed are significant because of Trump's repeated efforts to get Comey to drop the Russia investigation, as well as his preoccupation with and categorical denials about the Pee Tape allegation.
The very right-wingers who demanded that the Comey memos be released not only don't think the Pee Tape exists, they believe Comey used it as a trap.
Under this scenario, Trump was an innocent family business operator naïve to the ways of Washington, let alone Moscow, who was accosted by Comey, a scheming deep state operator, who sprang the Steele dossier and Pee Tape allegation on him.
Comey was agnostic on the matter of the Pee Tape during his spring tour to promote his Trump memoir, A Higher Loyalty.
"I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth," he says, "but I don't know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don’t know."
Putin, asked about the allegation, addressed it at the post-summit news conference.
"Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow," Putin replied. "Well, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn't even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."
That, of course, is a well-documented lie, as Putin had been repeatedly approached about meeting with Trump and sent Trump regrets that his schedule would not permit that.
The Pee Tape scenario once bordered on the implausible for me and perhaps many other people.
But we are now abundantly aware of Trump's innumerable affairs. Never mind that wife Melania was caring for baby Barron while he was pursuing Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, whom he bedded in Trump Tower. Or that he had been married to Melania for five years when he journeyed to Moscow. His sexual appetites are now well known. Nothing should surprise us, including consorting with peeing prostitutes provided by Putin's FSB for the purpose of kompromat.
Yet even if the Pee Tape is real and is released, the result would be briefly titillating and then predictably depressing as Trump would step up his denials, claims would be made that the tape was doctored, and Hillary Clinton would be blamed.
But if the Pee Tape does exist, and Trump's repeated, unsolicited and defensive comments suggest that he might have consorted with prostitutes at the Ritz-Carlton that night, why hasn't the tape been released?
That's easy. Because the tape is much more valuable to Putin as an existential threat to Trump gathering dust in a Kremlin closet than it is in the harsh light of day so long as the president continues to offer the kind of fawning obeisance he yet again showed in Helsinki, if not outright following Putin's orders.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.