One of the most memorable moments of Wednesday’s presidential debate was when Hillary Clinton told Donald Trump that Putin preferred him because “he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” Trump’s response was a take on the old “I’m rubber and you’re glue” approach, repeating ,“No puppet. No puppet.” before finally shouting, “You’re the puppet!”
To understand how this embarrassing moment came to pass, one must start with how Trump put himself in such a compromising position in the first place.
It began when Clinton confronted him about Russian intelligence hacking her emails. “Will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this,” Hillary Clinton asked, “and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage against Americans, which he actually encouraged in the past?”
If Trump had been smart, he would have unequivocally denounced Putin. After all, his campaign has been tarnished not only by his effusive praise for the Russian dictator — saying, among other things, that “he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader” — but by the fact that his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was forced to resign after revelations of his close relationship with pro-Putin forces in Ukraine. If Trump is indeed his own man and not Putin’s, he would have walked through the door that Clinton so clearly (and, for her own political purposes, perhaps unwisely) left open for him.
Instead Trump replied by deflecting the question and then insulting Clinton. “I don’t know Putin,” he insisted. “He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.” Trump went on to criticize Clinton on the grounds that Putin “has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president.”
The most generous interpretation here is that Trump simply offered a sub-par debate response. Of course, considering the speed with which Russian propaganda appears in his speeches after being leaked by WikiLeaks, it is also quite possible that he responded in a childish way because he knew Clinton was absolutely right.