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A former CIA chief is calling Trump a foreign agent. This is how absurd the election is.

Trump (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Here’s how ridiculous this election is: A former CIA director believes a major party candidate is a foreign agent.

Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, made the accusation in a New York Times op-ed published on Friday. In it, Morrell accuses Donald Trump of being an “unwitting agent” of Russia. An “unwitting agent,” in spy terms, means someone who has been tricked or manipulated into serving as a foreign operative without knowing it.

Morell believes that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president who was a KGB agent for 16 years, has manipulated Trump by playing on his vanity. Putin’s compliments and overtures, Morell says, have persuaded Trump to adopt pro-Russian policies at odds with longstanding American positions. That means Putin has suborned Trump to the Russian cause without the latter even knowing it. Here’s Morell’s case:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

This argument is a little too cute for my tastes. It leans very heavily on the idea that Putin persuaded Trump to take these positions through personal compliments, whereas it seems more likely to me that Trump’s pro-Russian positions stem from his longstanding admiration for authoritarians and antipathy toward American alliance commitments. Trump’s own view of international relations — as a zero-sum extortion racket — explains his policies better than a few stray comments from Putin.

But I can’t prove Morell wrong, not entirely. The fact that his case is even remotely plausible — and that it’s being made by an apolitical former CIA director in the pages of the New York Times, and not in some fringe crank rag — says a great deal about how truly bizarre this election has gotten.