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Putin: Friend or foe?

A declassified report by U.S. intelligence agencies claims Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the 2016 election hacks.

Dominating recent political news is the debate over whether Donald Trump is being played for a fool by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The media are rife with incredulous panic that Mr. Trump is insufficiently concerned about Russia's alleged Hillary hacking, and so rigid in his support of Mr. Putin that he could become even more complicit than President Barack Obama in enabling Russia's global expansion.

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A bigger concern, however, should be whether Mr. Putin is about to fall out of favor, particularly after the recent release of salacious and unverified opposition research alleging the Russian Bear would attempt to blackmail Mr. Trump.

Donald Trump's friends have a way of becoming enemies — and his enemies, friends — in a flash. Mr. Trump once said Ben Carson engaged in "total fabrications," for example, dismissing him as "sleepy" and more low energy than Jeb Bush. Then he made him a cabinet member. And Twitter is full of examples of the president turning on a dime to overreact to a new enemy or make a new friend of a previous enemy.

Earlier this month, Meryl Streep, the brilliant and largely uncontroversial actress, criticized President-elect Trump in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. She scolded him in sadness for mocking a disabled New York Times reporter during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Trump's response was predictable for candidate Trump but somewhat surprising and dismaying — and worrisome — for President-elect Trump: "Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes." He denied attacking the reporter but added that Ms. Streep was a "Hillary flunky."

I voted for neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton for president, but I have consistently specified that my major worry regarding a Trump presidency was that his volatile personality in a nuclear age — including his flying off the handle pursuant to personal slights or changes of perception of various principals — could lead to unpredictable explosions, figurative and literal.

Regarding Russia, Mr. Trump has consistently claimed that "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only 'stupid' people or fools" would come to a different conclusion."

But Mr. Trump may already be heading to reassess his friendly perception of Russia, acknowledging last week that the country was the likely culprit behind election hacking.

Remember: Mr. Trump hates being perceived as a patsy — hates it.

Once president, what if Mr. Trump finds an unrepentant President Putin who continues to ignore and flout United States interests in Syria, the genocide for which Mr. Trump has excoriated Mr. Obama?

The most frightening specter is not a President Trump who is overly friendly and compliant with Mr. Putin; it is a President Trump who believes Mr. Putin has played him for a fool and who overreacts. Hell hath no fury like a President Trump scorned.

Richard E. Vatz (rvatz@towson.edu) is professor of political communication at Towson University and author of "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion."

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