In 2017, the FBI actually opened an investigation into whether President Trump was working with the Russians. That extraordinary news arrived during the partial federal government shutdown, and then slipped from the media view amid the mounting drama of the shutdown. It deserves more attention, and not just because Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded (or conspired or coordinated) with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, the indictment of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally, shedding more light on the question last week.

It matters because of the confusion about where the Trump White House stands on Russia. The president has insisted via Twitter: “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President.” At times, his administration has been tough, for instance, bolstering the NATO response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The resignation letter of James Mattis as defense secretary alluded to the tougher approach with his reference to being “clear-eyed” in assessing “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Yet Mattis was exiting, saying the president deserved a defense secretary “whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”

And that is the problem, the president’s views going beyond his line about “getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.” He appears aligned with the agenda of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

The prime example is NATO. Putin long has wanted to see the alliance weakened. Trump has made a noisy public show of his dissatisfaction with alliance members, arguing they take financial advantage. He doesn’t seem to grasp the strategic value in projecting American values, power and influence, let alone the stabilizing benefit in Europe. According to recent news accounts, he has threatened to pull out of the alliance. Putin hardly could ask for more, if just to sow uncertainty among the NATO members.

The same goes for stirring doubts about the European Union, Trump finding common cause with those advocating the exit of Britain. A divided Europe invites openings for Putin. Recall that when Russia detained Ukrainian sailors in international waters, the president said, “We do not like what’s happening either way.”

That’s the kind of equivalence Putin likes to hear. Recall Trump answering in the context of Putin critics tending to turn up dead, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country’s so innocent?”

The sudden Trump decision to pull out of Syria fits into the Putin agenda. So do the curious Trump positions on sovereignty, its importance played up at the southern border yet practically ignored when it comes to the Russia attack on the presidential election two years ago. Imagine the satisfaction Putin took at that press conference in Helsinki, Trump siding with the Russian president over American intelligence agencies on whether Russia intervened. Those intelligence agencies still haven’t been briefed about what the two leaders discussed in their private meeting.

Which alludes to another way Trump seems to aid Putin — by aggravating divisions here. Russia attacked the presidential election with the aim of helping the Trump candidacy, and Americans now have a president who appears incapable of trying even to unite the country in a sustained fashion.

During the campaign, Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, described Donald Trump as an “unwitting agent” of Russia. More than two years later, the president has yet to explain at any length to what strategic purpose he aligns so often with the Putin agenda.