The last twenty hours or so have been among the most bizarre and confusing of this already unprecedentedly strange post-Trump era. However, the bottom line is that, Donald Trump, the master media manipulator, has won yet another round against a pathetically impotent news media, even though the facts might have effectively brought down a different president in a simpler era.
Before I explain how and why I think Trump is, at least for now, the victor in this latest battle, let me provide some observations on the many remarkable developments of the last day.
– The CNN report, though it has seemingly been contradicted by an ensuing NBC story, that Trump and President Obama were briefed on intelligence information indicating that Russia may have obtained compromising information on the President-elect, appears to be solid and makes total sense in the larger scheme of what we know about how the campaign went down.
– The full memo/report released by Buzzfeed is obviously unsubstantiated, already at least partly discredited, and is so over the top that it seems (hopefully) impossible for it not to be at least mostly false. However, if it is indeed true that the memo was shown to both Trump and Obama, then I think it was not totally illegitimate for Buzzfeed to publish it, though they probably should have emphasized the total lack of evidence corroborating it, or at least debunked the “Michael Cohen Prague Meeting” angle which seemed easy enough to do.
– For all the vehement protestations of Trump and his team against the Buzzfeed leak, the reality is that, at least politically, they should be sending Buzzfeed a very nice thank you note. If Buzzfeed had not released the memo, then the focus today would be on both the implications of the CNN report as well as the apparent fact that the FBI obtained a warrant to investigate the unusual ties to Russia with members the campaign Trump’s team. Instead, to many people the whole thing gets too convoluted and appears discredited entirely.
– While I don’t believe the Buzzfeed memo is “true” (Trump’s denials at his “press conference,” especially in the “germaphobe” area, seemed convincing to me), I don’t think that it is a “hoax” either. I believe those hypocritical Trump sycophants like Matt Drudge who immediately latched on to the rumor that this all began with a “4Chan” message board thread are both wrong (the timing of that theory makes absolutely no sense) and creating a greater disservice to journalism than anything Buzzfeed did here so far.
- Trump’s tweets on this issue this morning were both puzzling and embarrassingly unpresidential. Most absurd was his assertion that he was blindly relying on the word of Russia (which is denying the substance of the Buzzfeed memo) in order to combat allegations that he is a stooge of… Russia. This is much like him telling us that he has resolved the conflicts with his business simply because his sons are now taking it all over.
- It is clear that Trump and his team are purposely and strategically conflating the CNN report and the Buzzfeed memo. While there is little doubt that Buzzfeed, for legitimate reasons, felt that the CNN story gave merit to the publishing of the full report, CNN obviously is not to blame for the salacious and totally unsubstantiated “Golden Shower” story becoming part of the public domain.
- The idea that Trump, contrary to prior promises, is still being allowed to lie about the impact of an IRS audit to not release his taxes, even after these most recent Russian allegations, is probably the most damning indictment of the powerlessness of the modern press.
– Trump retaliating against CNN by purposely not calling on CNN’s Jim Acosta (which created a dramatic confrontation with the reporter) was at least as politically effective as it was unfair and dangerous to the entire concept of a free press. Trump calling them a “fake news” organization also sets a precedent for how Trump will now deal with all highly negative stories in the future, which will inevitably both work for him with his base as well as push us even further into this “post-truth” era.
– The most important moment from the Trump “press conference” was him TOTALLY dodging the question of whether his campaign ever had contacts with the Russian government. Reportedly he later responded “no” when asked again as he was leaving, but that means absolutely nothing to a guy like Trump. Unless it is said directly, on live TV, at a podium, such a denial has zero significance and he knows this. His initial dodge was a clear indicated that the real answer, at best, is that he’s not sure.
– Trump’s “solution” to this massive business conflict of interest problem, which he finally provided today, is a complete joke from an ethics perspective. However, he knows that the public doesn’t really understand or care much about this issue, and that the press has lost all power to move the needle on a topic which, which like his taxes, is a ratings loser. Therefore, since his own party is afraid of him, he knows that he will be able to get away with it, thus setting, before he has even taken office, yet another horrendous precedent for future presidents and creating predictable controversies for himself in the future.
I used to think that Bill Clinton was the slipperiest politician I had ever seen, but Trump has clearly surpassed him, mostly because his opponent, the incompetent news media, has been so weakened over the years by fragmentation and the ensuing desperation for ratings which has eroded their trust/influence with the public. I have no doubt that, unless some of these Russian allegations are somehow proven (which appears highly unlikely, even if they are true), that this entire episode will actually help Trump in several ways.
First, what allegation in the future could possibly measure up to the charge that Russia has compromising videos of him and that they conspired with him to win him the election? We are now already so desensitized that nothing (not even him settling a fraud lawsuit for $25 million) can ever really reach the level of “scandal.” Effectively, he is now like the heathen child who gets perceived as being great simply for getting passing grades and staying out of the principal’s office.
Secondly, the public’s distrust of the news media, and the narrative that they are out to get Trump at all costs, will be further established. This will make it even harder for negative stories about him in the future to gain traction, especially among non-liberals.
Finally, I think that, especially since Buzzfeed will likely get crushed over all of this, unless this story unexpectedly gets vindicated, that the news media will be more hesitant to go after Trump in a similar circumstance. That theoretically might be good for journalism, but it must also must make the Trump team smile.
When it comes to dealing with the news media, Trump is a like monster who seems to get stronger every time you attack him. If the media keeps going after him the same ineffective manner, they are very likely to keep getting the same result, and Trump will continue to have the last laugh.