Why did Trump go nuclear?

And here I had foolishly hoped that President Trump would let the Russia story simmer down. Here I had foolishly imagined he would follow his fine speech to Congress by focusing the public’s attention on policy and his quest to fulfill campaign promises.

Sure, the mainstream media was always going to peddle the Russia story. However, it was destined, at least for a while, to fall on mostly deaf ears. The voters who count for Trump are far more interested in defeating ISIS, carefully replacing Obamacare, and instituting pro-growth, pro-jobs policies than they are in relitigating the 2016 election and Russian involvement in that affair.

Now, relitigation becomes irresistible. The public will want to know not just whether President Obama had candidate Trump’s phones tapped, but why he did it (if he did). If a FISA court was persuaded to authorize the surveillance of Donald Trump, what was the evidence that persuaded it to do so?

Inquiring minds want to know. Even mine does.

If liberal media outlets like the Washington Post have assigned roughly a dozen reporters to the Russia story (as has been reported), we can now expect it to double that number. Suddenly, the matter has escalated from an increasingly tiresome Democratic talking point to, potentially, the story of the decade.

Moreover, Trump has far more to lose than does his predecessor. Obama can’t be impeached and he isn’t running for anything. Nor, assuming the administration secured the necessary order from the FISA court, has he done anything illegal. And his fans will admire him more than ever if he took legal steps in an effort to prevent the election of Donald Trump (or, as they see it, to prevent the Russians from electing Trump).

Why, then, did Trump magnify the Russia story? The simple explanation would be (justifiable) outrage that the Obama administration would tap his phone. However, this is a story that has been out there for a while. Apparently, Trump learned some new details, including the ones I discussed here. Maybe they caused him to go nuclear.

Or maybe Trump simply decided to play offense. He has seen the Russia story take down one of his key early backers — Gen. Flynn — and threaten to disable another — Jeff Sessions. He’s not one to sit back and let the opposition pick off his people one-by-one, with him the ultimate target.

We know that Trump’s practice is to “hit back twice as hard.” This looks the latest example.

The practice has served Trump well in business and, so far, in politics. So it is understandable that he would employ it now.

But, again, the situation here is asymmetrical. Unlike in his battles with Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton, Trump has far more to lose than Obama.

Trump had better be confident either that any wire tap on him was illegal or that the evidence leading to its authorization included nothing damaging to him. One inference from his decision to go on offense is that he has that confidence. But one could also surmise that he sees new trouble ahead and wants to change, as best he can, the focus of the conversation.

This much is clear to me: the Russians are the winners in this dispute. A second-rate power with a third-rate economy is dominating American politics.

Why? In part because, as Trump has suggested, it has a first-rate ruler — not in the moral sense of course, but in the punching above his country’s weight sense (the traditional way of evaluating world leaders). In part because our politics are becoming dysfunctional, and Putin is smart enough to know it.

Several people in the intelligence community have said that if the Russian government caused the hacking of emails and we know about it, then the Russians wanted us to know about it. How shrewd of them.

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