President Trump began his high-stakes Putin meeting, according to an account by the N.Y. Times' Glenn Thrush, by saying: "I'm going to get this out of the way: Did you do this?"
Russian hacking/propaganda ops in the 2016 election aren't a question in many minds besides Trump's. So that's certainly not a very muscular opening if you're interested in deterrence or retribution.
But Trump has shown little inclination for either: Not only does he not buy the extent of the Russian transgression, he has continued to call it "fake" in private.
Axios' Jonathan Swan texts me: "The cognitive dissonance — between his pride in his victory, and the fact that a sinister foreign force might've helped him — is too strong for him to ever fully believe it."
During an Air Force One briefing on the way home, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters: "What the President and Secretary [of State] Tillerson charged us with as they came out of the meeting is what we're going to do going forward."
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in the same gaggle, added one intriguing detail: "After a very substantive discussion on this, they reached an agreement that they would start a cyber unit to make sure that there was absolutely no interference whatsoever, that they would work on cybersecurity together."
Good luck with that! Marco Rubio tweets: "Partnering with Putin on a 'Cyber Security Unit' is akin to partnering with Assad on a 'Chemical Weapons Unit.'"
For all the back-patting among his aides as they post-gamed the trip, they were reminded of the water torture that they were returning to: While Air Force One was aloft, the N.Y. Times posted a front-page story about a meeting last June with "a Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin," arranged by one of Trump's sons, Don Jr., and attended by Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Be smart: Russia is the story of this presidency. Think about the past month alone: multiple investigations of collusion in full swing ... Trump at odds with virtually every federally elected Republican over Russia sanctions ... Trump-Putin meeting overshadows G-20 ... and now our Syria strategy hinges on Russia cooperation. It's like a Trump-Putin ticket is running the world!
P.S. Behold this pair of N.Y. Times headlines ... "Embattled at Home, Trump Sees Europe Trip as a High Point" ... "In Moscow, ... Putin's meeting with Mr. Trump was viewed as a win."