Sunday night, the Republican nominee for president of the United States took the side of a journalist-murdering dictator over his own country.
This was a remarkable, even unprecedented, moment in the history of presidential politics. We can argue whether Russia is an enemy or a frenemy, a rival power or a potential threat, but the autocratic Vladimir Putin is working against American interests and, according to virtually all credible sources, actively engaged in hacking to influence this election.
It's an easy call to condemn Putin, a vicious abuser of human rights. But given every opportunity during the debate, Donald Trump chose instead to side with him against American interests, against the truth, and even against his own running mate.
According to U.S. intelligence, Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and released its e-mails to Wikileaks. Of course America's intelligence apparatus is far from perfect, but if the White House is willing to go on the record accusing Russia, they are doing so on the foundation of a mountain of evidence.
But Trump thinks climate change is a hoax and vaccines cause autism. The concept of evidence – and possibly objective reality not of his own creation – is totally foreign to him. So when the White House says Russia hacked the DNC, the question for Trump isn't whether it's true, it's whether it fits his agenda and his worldview.
"She doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking," Trump said during the debate. "Maybe there is no hacking." That last line was a dog whistle to the conspiracy theorists who believe the recent tragic murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich was related to the hack. (Wikileaks leader Julian Assange, who knows damn well where the hacked files came from, even offered a reward for information on Rich's death as an inhumanly immoral head fake.)
Trump feigned a lot of ignorance about Russia Sunday night. "I don't know Putin," he said after spending a good chunk of the campaign heaping praise on the dictator. "I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia," he claimed, although his business ties there are extensive and well documented.
But if this half-melted creamsicle of a man knows so little about Russia, why do his pronouncements so often align with Kremlin interests?
It isn't just that Trump agrees with the Putin regime that the Putin regime isn't responsible for the DNC hack. It isn't just that he and Mike Pence believe Putin, who murders journalists and dissidents, is a better leader than President Obama.
The most important moment of the debate last night was Trump's assessment of Syria, which lined up exactly with Russia's interests. Just look at this passage:
"[Clinton] talks really tough against Putin and against Assad. She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn't even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people. And you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people."
The message there is clear: Trump wants to side with Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who have been waging vicious war against the U.S.-backed rebels. Assad is responsible for the vast majority of violence and suffering in the country – he has killed far more Syrians than the brutal thugs of ISIS – and he has done it with the military might of Russia behind him.
Donald Trump is on Assad's side. He went on, "I think you have to knock out ISIS. Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS." This couldn't be a clearer signal to the world that he would allow Assad and Russia a free hand to conduct their brutal war not just against ISIS, but against the rebels who oppose Assad's regime.
A Trump presidency would be a dream – the sticky kind – for Vladimir Putin. Trump has made it clear Putin would have free reign, and not just in Syria. The Republican nominee for president of the United States has consistently denigrated our alliances as making America weaker. He's threatened to withdraw American protection from our allies around the world and suggested they bear a greater burden for their security.
That is exactly what Putin wants: a diminished America to allow him to expand Russia's influence and territory. And under a Trump presidency, he'll get it.
The Trump campaign's ties to Russia are more than troubling – they're terrifying. His former campaign chairman made millions working for a Russia-backed autocrat who used to rule Ukraine. His top national security adviser has buddied up to Putin. And Trump has personally pursued business opportunities in Russia for decades. His rhetoric on the campaign trail has been solicitous of Putin and, like his words about Syria in the debate, often parroted the Russian line. These are not coincidences. This is a dangerous pattern.
Trump threatened to jail his opponent if he became president. It was a chilling moment that revealed the depth of his ignorance and disdain for the principles that actually make America great. It was also a window into how his presidency would change our country. Sunday night, Trump made it clear he wants us to look a lot more like Putin's Russia.
Donald Trump said at a press conference that he hopes Russia will find Hillary Clinton's deleted emails. Watch here.