The biggest scandal of all-time
I have been meaning to draw your attention to this piece by David Corn at Mother Jones because I think it’s important to take a step back and look at the big picture:
The other evening I was on a cable news show to cover the latest Russia news of the day—and I had an epiphany.
We were talking about a recent scoop from Michael Isikoff, the co-author of my latest book, Russian Roulette. He had reported that a Spanish prosecutor had handed the FBI wiretapped transcripts of a Russian official who was suspected of money laundering and for years had been trying to gain influence within the American conservative movement and the National Rifle Association. We then discussed a New York Times article revealing that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime fixer, had met with a Russian oligarch in January 2017, around the time a US company affiliated with this tycoon began making $500,000 in payments to Cohen. Next we turned to the latest in the so-called Spygate nonscandal—the false claim, championed by Trump and his defenders, that the FBI infiltrated a spy into his presidential campaign for political purposes.
Then the show moved on. We had spent 15 or so minutes on these important developments, delving into the details—but without referring to the essence of the story. And it hit me: Though it’s clear Trump’s presidency has been hobbled by the Russia scandal, the manner in which this matter plays out in the media has helped Trump.
Almost every day, Trump pushes out a simple (and dishonest) narrative via tweets and public remarks: The Russia investigation is a…well, you know, a witch hunt. Or a hoax. Or fake news. He blasts out the same exclamations daily: Witch hunt, hoax! Hoax, witch hunt! That’s his mantra.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2018
His synopsis is easy to follow. It encompasses (even if by ignoring) every new fact and revelation. It connects all the inaccurate and false dots Trump and his partisans toss out: Unmasking! Obama wiretapped Trump! The FBI improperly obtained warrants to conduct surveillance on his campaign advisers! And so on. He’s the victim. The bad guys are the Dems, libs, prosecutors, and deep staters pursuing this huge nothing-burger for nothing but political gain. The Russia story, in Trump’s telling, is a black-and-white tale of evildoers persecuting a great man—him. Sad. And this bully uses his pulpit (and smartphone) to transmit this simple message nonstop.
A.P. has just reported that the Russian Hoax Investigation has now cost our government over $17 million, and going up fast. No Collusion, except by the Democrats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2018
The other side—the accurate perspective—isn’t that complicated. In 2016, Vladimir Putin’s regime mounted information warfare against the United States, in part to help Trump become president. While this attack was underway, the Trump crew tried to collude covertly with Moscow, sought to set up a secret communications channel with Putin’s office, and repeatedly denied in public that this assault was happening, providing cover to the Russian operation. Trump and his lieutenants aligned themselves with and assisted a foreign adversary, as it was attacking the United States. The evidence is rock-solid: They committed a profound act of betrayal. That is the scandal.
He goes on to point out what a complicated story it is and how difficult it is to keep track of the details. But everyone gets tangled in them which means that Trump’s narrative is being absorbed, mainly because nobody’s repeating that less complicated narrative, especially the Democrats who, for some reason, seem terrified to make the case.
Much of the media framing of the Russia scandal has followed Trump’s lead and adopted his collusion-centric perspective. The debate, such as it is, has become whether Trump directly collaborated with Moscow’s covert operation—and whether Trump, as president, tried to thwart the investigation and obstruct justice. The story is not driven by the serious offenses already established: Trump and his associates encouraged and assisted an attack from a foreign foe.
In this ongoing fight, it is Trump and his bumper stickers versus a media presenting a wide variety of disparate disclosures that come and go quickly in a hyperchaotic information ecosystem, often absent full context. No wonder then that a recent poll found that 59 percent of Americans said Mueller has uncovered no crimes. In fact, he has secured 17 criminal indictments and obtained five guilty pleas. Accurate news reporting alone does not always carry the day.
The Russia scandal is the most important scandal in the history of the United States. President Andrew Johnson was impeached (but not convicted) because he violated an act of Congress to remove a secretary of war. In the Teapot Dome scandal, the secretary of the interior in Warren Harding’s administration leased federal lands at low rates to private oil companies, presumably in return for bribes. In Watergate, a president and his aides engaged in political skulduggery against political foes. President Bill Clinton lied about a sexual affair he had with a subordinate in the White House. All these scandals raised serious questions about integrity in government. But at the heart of the Russia scandal is the most fundamental issue for a democracy: the sanctity of elections.
An overseas enemy struck at the core of the republic—and it succeeded. Trump and his minions helped and encouraged this attack by engaging in secret contacts with Moscow and publicly insisting no such assault was happening. This is far bigger than a bribe, a break-in, or a blow job. And, worse, the United States remains vulnerable to such a strike.
Yet the full impact of this scandal does not resonate in the daily coverage and discourse. In many ways, the media presents the Russia scandal mostly as a political threat to Trump, not as a serious threat to the nation. And many Americans, thanks to Trump and his allies, view it as a charade. All this shows how easy it is for disinformation and demagoguery to distort reality. That is a tragedy for the United States. For Trump—and Putin—that is victory.
Read the whole thing, there’s much more and it’s good.
The bottom line is that an incompetent, unfit, corrupt president was elected with the help of an adversarial foreign power. Of course that’s the worst scandal in American history. And he may get away with it.