‘Schmuck or stooge?’ Morning Joe panel clashes over Trump’s allegiance to Putin
Joe Scarborough and Donny Deutsch (MSNBC)

Panelists on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" agreed something seemed off about President Donald Trump's relationship to Russian president Vladimir Putin -- but they couldn't agree why.

Host Joe Scarborough said Trump's behavior the past week showed he was "afraid" of Putin, and that the Russian president had blackmail leverage over him, and MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch agreed.

"You and I know Trump, we both believe that he does," Scarborough said. "In fact, I would bet an awful lot, bet a lot on that."

Deutsch said he would "bet everything" that Putin was blackmailing Trump.

"There's no other explanation," Deutsch said. "We can sit with learned folks and say, why is he so subservient? Well, obviously, he's owned."

But he and Scarborough both tried to make sense of the fact that so many members of the Trump administration were less trusting of Putin, but Deutsch said the president was trying to balance Republican trust with his allegiance to Russia's president.

"At the end of the day he is owned," Deutsch said. "Our president ... does surround himself with hawkish people, there is no other explanation. If you understand how this man has done business -- he's owned by our No. 1 geopolitical enemy. I'm going to say it again: He is owned. There is no other explanation."

Timothy Carney, commentary editor for the conservative Washington Examiner, disagreed.

"Here's the rational explanation," Carney said. "He likes strongmen. My explanation is simpler, and Occam's razor suggests it over your explanation."

Deutsch suggested the possibility that Kim Jong-un, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte were also blackmailing Trump, and conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens chimed in.

"Half this argument of whether he's a schmuck or a stooge leads to the same conclusion," Stephens said. "It's also possible to think he's had an ideological affinity for Russia, a psychological affinity for strongmen. at the end of the day you have a president who is determined to buck his advisers and seek a relationship with Russia which is antithetical to the interests of the free world, and that should matter to us all."

Stephens said the Russia hawks around Trump have no influence, and in fact the president had helped steer Republican voters toward Putin.

"Whether the explanation is a conspiracy theory or the fact that he simply is in love with strongmen or that he's always liked Russians," Stephens said, "at the end of the day that's less interesting than what the result is for U.S. foreign policy."

Scarborough and MSNBC's John Heilemann agreed Trump was helping Putin achieve his strategic goal of weakening NATO, and they feared what would come next.

"Now you have Donald Trump this week saying we're sure as hell not going to defend Montenegro if they are invaded," Scarborough said. "The Baltic leaders had to be shaking after hearing those words because it gives Putin a green light to roll the tanks."