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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Dana Milbank: Is Vladimir Putin trying to help his admirer Donald Trump win the White House?

By Dana Milbank Washington Post Writers Group

Donald Trump never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like – until now.

He has dabbled in, among other things, the notion that President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination.

But on one topic, Trump is conspicuously incurious: the suggestion that he is complicit in a plan by Vladimir Putin to influence the U.S. election. Consider how Trump might react to the following fact pattern if the candidate involved weren’t “Donald Trump” but – let’s pick a name at random here – “Hillary Clinton”:

The candidate’s real estate empire, unable to borrow from most U.S. banks, gets capital from Russian sources. Such transfers couldn’t occur without Putin’s blessing.

The candidate’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has worked extensively for pro-Putin oligarchs.

One of the candidate’s foreign policy advisers, Michael Flynn, was filmed sitting with Putin at a Moscow banquet celebrating a Russian propaganda network.

Another adviser, Carter Page, has close ties to Gazprom, the Russian energy company under Putin’s thumb.

One of the only interferences the campaign made in the Republican platform was to remove language calling for “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists.

The candidate cast doubt on the utility of NATO and said he might not come to the aid of Baltic members of the alliance attacked by Russia.

Putin has aimed to destabilize rival powers by supporting extremist parties in several European countries. His state news outlets have been heavily supportive of the candidate.

The Russian ambassador to the United States attended a campaign speech by the candidate, and Putin described the candidate as “talented.” The candidate said he was honored.

Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee and, experts say, handed the emails to WikiLeaks for release on the eve of the Democratic convention.

If the Clinton campaign were so extensively interwoven with Putin’s Russia, it’s a safe bet that Trump would be demanding that Clinton release her tax returns to prove that she’s not beholden to Putin – just as he demanded that Obama release his birth certificate.

He would also very likely float allegations masquerading as questions by using the phrases “a lot of people have said” or “I’m hearing,” or “there’s something we don’t know about.” But Trump, I’m hearing, won’t be doing that in this case.

So let’s help him. The following are all phrases Trump has used to float conspiracy theories – but this time applied to his Putin ties – combined with wild Trump-style speculation:

A lot of people have said Putin is trying to get Trump elected so he can blackmail the American president. Somebody told me Trump would completely go out of business if Putin took back all the Russian money he let Trump have. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I just heard Trump’s airplane would be grounded immediately.

Manafort helping the oligarchs? Flynn having dinner with Putin? Page getting money from Gazprom? No coincidence! Now it’s coming out that Putin wants to destabilize America. There’s something fishy about the whole thing.

And why did Trump propose changing NATO and Ukraine policy in ways that would benefit Putin? Obviously some people think it’s evil intentions. I think it’s incompetence. Regardless, a lot of people think it’s evil intentions.

I don’t bring up the possibility that Trump has already been bribed or blackmailed by Putin because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely bribery and blackmail. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.

I’m hearing it’s a big topic, the question of whether Trump is guilty of treason. I’m not sure. I mean, let people make their own determination. Trump never denied that Putin was his patron.

He cannot give us his tax returns. He didn’t pay his taxes, or, if he did, there’s something in those returns that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me – and I have no idea whether this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be – that he owes billions to Putin. Somebody said, ‘Maybe that’s the reason he doesn’t want to show his returns.’ I don’t think so. I just don’t think he paid his taxes.

Why is Trump so emphatic about not talking about his Putin connections? He gets it better than anybody understands. There’s something going on. There’s something we don’t know about. I don’t know. All I know is what’s on the Internet. Wow!

Dana Milbank is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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