the national circus

Donald Trump, Russia, and the Political ‘Witch Hunt’ That Isn’t

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s press conference, BuzzFeed, and Bill O’Reilly’s settlement.

Near the end of Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday, Trump was asked if he could “stand here today, once and for all, and say that no one connected to him or his campaign “had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the presidential campaign.” He tried to avoid the question at the podium, and the press chased him to ask again at the elevator. Is this a sign that Trump’s Russia evasions and broad denials will eventually run out of steam?
Let’s not pretend we don’t know what is happening here. There is evidence that Donald Trump and his administration-in-formation are partially, perhaps wholly, beholden to the Kremlin and/or those Russian oligarchs in its thrall. This is why Trump refused to answer that question about contacts with Russia during the campaign — and why he’ll lie about it when he finally feels he must muster some kind of answer. His symbiosis with Russia is also why he will never release his tax returns, for what other reason could there be at this point except that they reveal the Russian financial ties he denies? After all, we already know the other embarrassments contained in those returns — that he hasn’t paid taxes for years, that he practices no actual philanthropy, and that his businesses are in a perennial waltz with bankruptcy, fraud, and failure.

No, Russia is the big story here. The elephant in the room is a bear. Trump has made no bones about repeatedly hiring fellow Putin sycophants, whether his former campaign chief Paul Manafort, the incoming National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, or the secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson. When the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh was awarded a medal, the Service Cross of the German Eagle, by Hermann Goering “by order of der Führer” before World War II, it helped make him persona non grata in the FDR White House. When Tillerson received a Russian Order of Friendship Award from Putin, Trump regarded it as an incentive to hire him.

How this will play out once Trump is inaugurated is impossible to fathom. We have a president-elect who trusts Putin and Julian Assange more than he does America’s intelligence agencies, whom he has compared to the Nazis. Perhaps Trump’s only real goal is to grab money from deep Russian pockets as fast as he can in opaque business deals managed by his sons while he’s in office. Even so, it’s entirely possible that he and Flynn will help facilitate Putin’s own political aims in exchange — all the while claiming that their motive is merely to band with Russia in “fighting ISIS.” What’s clear is that we are not going to get straight answers to any Russian questions. Even before Trump took over the lectern at his Wednesday press conference, his press spokesman, Sean Spicer, unleashed a preemptive lie about still another Trump-Kremlin connection by claiming that Trump “does not know” Carter Page, an investment banker who was investigated by the F.B.I. last summer for suspicions of private dealings with Russian leaders. In fact, Page had been announced as a Trump foreign-policy adviser by his campaign last year and had been cited by name by Trump himself in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board in March. Both Page and Trump, by the way, have used the term “witch hunt” to describe any attempts to investigate their Russian dealings — the same term used by the Kremlin to fend off evidence that Putin manipulated the American election. Perhaps Page and Trump have the same Kremlin handler, whether or not it is the former KGB agent Putin himself.

Just minutes after CNN reported that intelligence agencies had briefed Trump and President Obama about compromising financial and personal information Russia may hold about the president-elect, BuzzFeed posted a dossier containing the unconfirmed details. BuzzFeed says their dossier is “how we see the job of reporters in 2017”; CNN’s Jake Tapper says it is “irresponsible” and “hurts us all.” Did BuzzFeed make the right call?
Next to the staggering list of press failures that have marked Trump’s rise to the presidency, this seems small potatoes. BuzzFeed did frame what it published as being both unconfirmed and redolent with errors. The “dossier” may well prove to be utter trash (if entertaining trash), and the only slender justification for publishing it is that it fleshes out a true news break by CNN, that both Obama and Trump had been told of this salacious report’s existence by American intelligence agencies, who also have not verified it. But is BuzzFeed’s sin worse than CNN having put Trump henchman Corey Lewandowski on its election-year payroll? Or than the Times repeatedly giving major home-page play to data suggesting that Hillary Clinton had a close to 100 percent chance of victory right up to Election Day? You could argue that that latter stunt actually suppressed Democratic turnout in the presidential race; the BuzzFeed stunt changed nothing unless you count the impressive number of jokes it has prompted, on Twitter and beyond, around the phenomenon of #GoldenShower. It is not a bright spot in BuzzFeed’s history, but the ruckus it has generated seems disproportionate, a reflection of how much Trump has put the press on the defensive over a bruising 18 months.

What most seems to upset press critics about BuzzFeed’s action —understandably — is that Trump seized on it to paint the entire press Establishment, including CNN, as purveyors of “fake news.” That is an outrage, but if Trump hadn’t found this pretext, he would have found another opening soon enough. There is, of course, no bigger purveyor of fake news than Trump himself, unless it’s his comrade in alt-right propaganda, Stephen Bannon. Trump’s entire campaign was spawned by trafficking in conspiracy theories, whether about President Obama or Mexican immigrants or imaginary Muslims cheering 9/11 in New Jersey. His effort to play the virtuous defender of journalistic ethics is as ludicrous as his presenting himself as the greatest, most respectful champion of America’s women. He is determined to bully, destabilize, and discredit the press. But those who buy his preposterous self-righteous pose are so imprisoned by the alternative reality of Trump anyway that they might as well be Scientologists — nothing short of an intervention will return them to the real world. These are the same people who think that Trump’s display of piles of manila envelopes at his press conference actually told us something about his business ethics. If I may briefly embrace Trumpism by being both vulgar and politically incorrect, let me say that people who fall for his bullshit are idiots. Even if the dossier BuzzFeed published is found to be mostly true, they’ll still believe it’s fake news because it doesn’t match the fake news they are imbibing every day.

It’s now come out that, soon after Fox News ousted chairman Roger Ailes, declaring that his behavior would not be tolerated, the network also settled with an employee making similar sexual-harassment complaints against Bill O’Reilly. Why do you think O’Reilly was able to remain at the network?
As my colleague Gabriel Sherman has reported, Fox News is now officially all in on Trump, as certified by Rupert Murdoch’s decision to promote the Trump-friendly Tucker Carlson to the Trump skeptic Megyn Kelly’s vacated prime-time slot. A network allied with the president-elect who gave America “grab ’em by the pussy” and that tolerated Ailes’s predatory sexual behavior for years is certainly going to stand by its highest-rated on-camera personality even if he is a repeat sexual offender. Let’s just be grateful that neither BuzzFeed nor anyone else has yet obtained audio tapes of O’Reilly masturbating while on the phone with his female prey, a particularly gross element in the Times’ account of the latest incident. Then again, in the Trump era, it’s safe to say that just as Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any of his followers, so O’Reilly could be found masturbating outside the Fox News studio on Sixth Avenue and not lose the confidence of either his viewers or the Murdochs.

Trump, Russia, and the Political ‘Witch Hunt’ That Isn’t