It would be comical if not so serious. Or perhaps serious if not so tragicomic. Certainly, had an author or screenwriter suggested what American politics has seen this week, it would have been judged unbelievable.
The Trump presidency has not even begun. This week might yet be the peak of insanity, the moment at which the competing groups and power centers – media outlets, intelligence agencies, political parties, foreign superpowers – just throw everything they can out there before the administration really gets going. What is equally plausible, however, is that this is only the beginning.
Even as President Barack Obama was finishing his well-honed final speech in Chicago, his incoming successor was taking to Twitter in furious capital letters, forced to respond to the suggestion he had been compromised by Russian intelligence who provided salacious details of alleged sexual acts in Moscow.
Online and in his Wednesday press conference, Trump branded the allegations “fake news”, the phrase used to describe the growing number of false online news stories that have proliferated over the internet and social media.
In reality, the situation appears more complex. According to multiple reports, the dossier published late Tuesday by BuzzFeed – sourced to a supposed former British intelligence official, hired by a Washington political research firm – had been taken seriously enough to be discussed at the highest level in Washington, D.C., including the presidency. Trump is said to have received a two-page summary of the allegations in a classified report intelligence officials gave him last week – although he says he will not discuss what was said in that meeting.
No one knows whether the allegations are true – the reason so many other media outlets chose not to publish them. Nor is the dossier in any sense the most important thing happening in the world, even this week.
A Chinese aircraft carrier was on Wednesday nosing its way through the Taiwan Strait. U.S. and Iranian forces were squaring off in the Indian Ocean after an incident earlier in the week. And European powers were still struggling to find their way through a myriad range of interlinked crises, from the migrant crisis to Brexit to the future of the euro, the rise of the far right and their own confrontation with Russia.
And as if that were not enough, North Korea – which may yet prove the most serious flashpoint of 2017 – was moving closer to its most sophisticated ballistic missile test yet.
Foreign affairs, of course, have rarely been Trump’s number one priority. In his first press conference since the election, he was clearly much more keen to focus on his economic and jobs plans as well as the future of the Trump Organization. Almost all the media questions, however, focused on Russia.
The risk for Trump is that the reality or otherwise of the allegations ceases to be the point: the fact they are so widely known just undermines his credibility. The justification BuzzFeed used for releasing the admittedly dodgy dossier was that the material was already circulating widely within the corridors of power in Washington and beyond. That’s a reasonable argument – but in scattering the allegations more broadly, it has almost guaranteed that the story will never go away.
That’s important for a couple of reasons. First, it means that questions of Trump and Russia will more likely drag on throughout his administration, much as some of the allegations against Bill Clinton, sexual and otherwise, did throughout his presidency. Already, senior figures in Congress are looking to push ahead with hearings on election hacking and perhaps broader Russian interference in U.S. politics. Even at the very best, Trump may find himself the butt of jokes and suffering a drip feed of gossip and innuendo.
That was, of course, true before. Even the barest scan of the internet and social media overnight, however suggests the more graphic material in the dossier will linger in the public mind for years. Like similarly off-color suggestions about former British Prime Minister David Cameron and a pig, their actual veracity barely matters.
It is possible, of course, that this was always Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy – to build Trump up, get him in the White House, but trash his reputation. Giving him or his spies credit for a plan that devious, however, might well be too generous.
The most damaging allegations, if true, would be those that suggest senior members of the Trump campaign reached out directly to Russian officials during the campaign. Some of the claims in the dossier about Trump associates meeting Russian officials already appear to be false.
At the end of the press conference, however, Trump pointedly failed to answer questions about whether any contact between his team and Russian officials took place.
Even if the entire dossier were true, that itself would not necessarily mean that Trump was somehow “compromised”. Indeed, one could even argue that the fact that these stories are now out there makes it harder for anyone in Moscow to blackmail the U.S. president. If Trump could win an election despite being recorded saying he could “grab [women] by the pussy”, he is unlikely to be undone by anything he may have been up to in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
What might be just as dangerous, however, is that he may now feel he has no choice but to take a much tougher line with Putin – and possibly other U.S. adversaries – in a way that might prove equally destabilizing, perhaps even catastrophically dangerous.
We may have already seen early signs of this. At his confirmation hearing Wednesday, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson – who was close to Putin as Exxon Mobil CEO – also signaled a rather tougher than expected line. As well as keeping U.S. sanctions in place, he appeared open to suggestions of increasing military support to Ukraine.
It’s not particularly useful to fixate on blame – the face-off between Moscow and Washington is hardly new, although these are unquestionably new tactics and times. Clearly, Russia has been doing what it can to disrupt and generally cause chaos within the U.S. political system. It has been doing so in part because Putin blames the Obama administration for supporting opposition groups in Russia. Both countries, of course, have been liberally interfering in other states for decades. Doing so with each other, it now seems clear, has not made either more stable or safe.
As Trump himself has complained, the way in which U.S. intelligence agencies and officials have also thrown themselves into the political maelstrom is also distinctly destabilizing. From the FBI reopening investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails mere days before the election to U.S. spies briefing the media on allegations against Trump, it is all deepening distrust in a way that will make running the Trump White House much, much more difficult
The irony, of course, is that Trump’s own rise is so impossible to divorce from many of these trends. His chief political selling point, after all, has always been his lack of political correctness and unpredictability. The rise of unsourced and sometimes outright false “fake news” arguably did much to help him and undermine Clinton’s campaign. Now, however, a similar kind of rumor and conjecture could undermine his own presidency in a way that may make him its greatest victim.
The world was already pretty complicated. This will not make handling any of it easier.
(Editor’s note: A sentence in paragraph 15 contains language that may be offensive to some readers.)