It didn't have to go like this for President Donald Trump.

Just a few words early on in his tenure would have made for a different narrative for the Russian investigation that's severely hampering his agenda.

A mere utterance. That's all that was required.

"Any attack on an American election is an attack on us all," he could have said. "I, too, am concerned and I hope that the Justice Department and FBI get to the bottom of this."

Trump didn't have to say anything that called into question his legitimacy as president. Nor did he have to broach the specifics about his one-time campaign chief, Paul Manafort, one of two men charged Monday with conspiracy and money laundering after Special Counsel Robert Mueller won an indictment from a federal grand jury. Another member of Trump's campaign team, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty Monday of lying about conversations he had with Russian agents. 

A simple acknowledgement -- and a legitimate commitment to stay out of the investigation's way -- and this Russia story would be fundamentally different. At worst, Trump would be considered a bumbling political neophyte who surrounded himself with the wrong people.  

The president chose a different path.

Over the weekend, amid reports that Mueller was about to hand down his first indictment, Trump took to Twitter and screamed "fake news." He continued his nonsensical assault on his Democratic opponent who does not inhabit the White House. He blasted news agencies for, yet again, accurately reporting the story -- just like they did when digging into meetings between Trump's family and Russian operatives, Russia's use of Facebook to sow confusion among key swing voters and the incredibly long list of Trump's cabinet who were forced out only because reporters got it right.

Manafort's arrest and Papadopoulos' plea again proves that none of this is "fake news," Mr. President.  And yet, Trump went ballistic on Twitter Monday morning. 

No one would expect a freshly elected president to come out and question his own legitimacy. All Trump had to do, in those early days, was to express concern. And, from there, he merely had to stay out of the way. A simple acknowledgement that foreign meddling was troubling and serious would have provided Trump substantial political cover. 

Instead, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and admitted that the Russian investigation was on his mind when he did it. He deflects every time a fresh revelation about the investigation is about to break. He and his allies have actively attempted to undermine the investigation through innuendo and falsehood.

Trump and his inner circle very well might have had nothing to do with the Russian interference campaign. Terrible judgement just might be their biggest crime. Yet his administration consistently behaves as if it's steering a cover up. Considering the massive power of the presidency, that behavior poses legitimate risks to basic constitutional principles.

Trump's reaction to the Russian investigation -- more than anything else -- has hamstrung his administration.

Don't blame some mythical "deep state." Don't blame "Democrats," who wield very little power in Washington. Don't blame "the media." Trump and Trump alone has blown through political capital with unprecedented speed.

Along the way, Trump's collected a slew of sycophants in Congress more than willing to play along, as the president dawdles in delusion. Those members are only concerned with sending tax cuts to Trump's desk for a rubber stamp. To that end, they've been more than willing to defend the indefensible.

But even these members of Congress know Trump is a weak president with approval ratings in the high-30s. Under Trump, the ruling GOP has not one legislative accomplishment. As such, even Trump's most stalwart apologists are growing frustrated with his self-destructive impulsiveness.

No doubt, Trump will continue to pin his failings on the media, his critics and investigators for simply doing their jobs. But, in reality, Trump has no one else to blame but himself. Trump's fecklessness stems from that moment when his own insecurities barred him from admitting that foreign interference in an American election posed a clear and present danger. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

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