David French does a good job below explaining why the “watch what Trump does with Russia, not what he says about it” defense is such weak sauce.
I’d just add a couple things. First, the “who cares what he says?” or “that’s just his style!” standard is deployed awfully selectively. Here’s the simplest way to think about it: If Donald Trump had called out Putin, manfully standing up for America and reading the Russian dictator the riot act, the same people saying, “words don’t matter” would be over the moon celebrating Trump’s leadership and strength (indeed, this was the pregame spin of the summit from the usual suspects). So which is it? Do his words only matter when his words work for him?
It’s all a bit like the old Jon Stewart defense. When he said scathing, nasty, vicious, partisan things, Stewart took all the awards and accolades he could get from liberals. When conservatives complained or pushed back, he’d just say, “Hey, I am just a funny man! Don’t take me so seriously.” If Trump’s words matter when you like them, you can’t claim they don’t matter when you don’t like them.
Second, Trump’s words matter beyond the realm of diplomacy and foreign policy. They set the tone for our political discourse, for the arguments people make for him and against him. They motivate and demotivate voting blocs. They affect the morale of people who work in the executive branch. And, more to the point, the words of those who defend his words matter too. Conservatism is being reshaped because of his words, and the words of those who think Trump’s rhetoric is never the “real” problem.