Americans have been riveted for more than a year on this question: What did, or didn’t, Russia do to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign cycle and the election itself? That’s a backward-looking quest, and the Tribune continues to trust that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will solve the puzzle.

This week, though, forces all of us to confront a much different question: Does Trump’s stupefying conduct during and after his meeting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin signal incompetence and obsession that put his presidency — if not this nation — at elevated risk?

The American president who took the world stage in Helsinki struck us as bewildered, bedeviled. Trump repeated Putin’s self-exoneration despite the well-evidenced accusations of meddling from the U.S. intelligence community. Trump tried to reassure Americans that Putin’s rejection of accusations against Russia was “extremely strong and powerful.” But this was the real subtext: Trump was cutting off any suggestion that he was elected illicitly.

Trump’s top priority — reiterating that his campaign didn’t collude with Russians — betrayed the depth of his obsession with an election outcome now 20 months in the past. Faced with the options of looking like Putin’s poodle or admitting that Russian meddling might have made some difference in the election outcome, Trump made the worse choice.

What’s most significant is that Trump made that choice while standing with arguably the greatest enemy of the United States.

The reactions of Trump’s noisiest detractors and supporters at home have been true to form: The detractors are exhausting their synonyms for deranged, deceptive, traitorous. The supporters note that once again we’re discussing what Trump says and tweets, not troop movements or launch codes.

But as Americans try to absorb the whiplash, this moment especially challenges one constituency: Republican officeholders have to decide whether they want to limit his powers to obstruct Mueller or to cut military, trade or diplomatic deals with Moscow. They’ll weigh Democrats’ calls to denounce Trump against the president’s popularity among GOP voters who’ve enjoyed watching him unhinge their political foes.

This week, though, it’s the president who has looked unhinged — haunted by the suggestion that he owes his election to Putin, or that Putin has compromising information about him.

The perception of instability and obsession now looms over the White House as never before in this presidency. What domestic or geopolitical move will the man in the Oval Office make next? Might that act be reckless, damaging, irreversible?

Because the longer Donald Trump preoccupies himself with Russia and his legitimacy as president, the less legitimate he looks to Americans.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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