There’s madness to Trump’s method
It is late April, 2016. George Papadopoulos, an obscure foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, meets Joseph Mifsud, a London based academic closely linked to the Kremlin (and, since October last year, missing person).
Papadopoulos is told Russia has dirt on his campaign opponent – a motherlode of emails illegally hacked from servers.
Days after Papadopoulos reports back, another campaign adviser tweets out, “Russia has 20,000 emails stolen from her secret home server”. This was one week before the US Government makes its first acknowledgement that hackers may be targeting the election, and more than a month before any more details are made public.
In early May, Papadopoulos drunkenly spills the goods to Alexander Downer, Australia’s High Commissioner to London – a conversation relayed to the FBI two months later. (Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Robert Mueller).
Meanwhile, in early June, the campaign receives, via an intermediary, another approach from Kremlin-aligned actors, including a lawyer identified (falsely) as “Russia’s crown prosecutor”. The candidate's son, Don jr., agrees to meet the Russians after they promise damaging information on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support ” for his father,
“Love it!”, Jr. exclaims. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump-in-law Jared Kushner agree to come along.
What exactly transpires at the June 9 meeting remains unclear. But Russian 'active measures' soon escalate to fever pitch, culminating in a series of major leaks timed to mitigate damage from the release, in the campaign’s dying days, of an obscenity-laced videotape that imperils Trump's chances.
After Australian intelligence passes on details of the May meeting between Downer and Papadopoulos, the FBI launches a probe into whether the Campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin, as well as an examination of the nature and extent of Russian activities. Chris Steele, former MI6 Russia specialist, provides agents further claims of collusion between Team Trump and Russia, collated as part of research paid for initially by a media outlet and, later, the Democratic National Committee.
By July 2016, despite growing speculation about illicit contacts with Russians, the Campaign isn’t dissuaded from amending the Republican platform at the nominating convention in explicitly pro Kremlin terms. They convince the party to dial back support for Putin's Ukrainian enemies: instead of providing “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine’s Armed Forces”, the next Republican President would offer “appropriate assistance” instead. This was the only change they brought to the platform.
(Noteworthy sidebar on Manafort: He earned at least $16 million in consulting fees from a Kremlin backed Ukrainian politician, offered himself free of charge to the candidate, while promising briefings to oligarchs and administration jobs to bank executives from whom he secured loans currently under scrutiny, along with tax evasion, in a Federal Courthouse. Deemed a flight risk, the Chairman is being held in solitary confinement, while Rick Gates, his longtime deputy, both on the campaign and in the consultancy business, appears this week for federal prosecutors as star witness to avoid his own date with a jumpsuit).
Reverting to the chronology: from July 2016, Roger Stone, notorious dirty trickster and Trump lifer, begins several direct contacts both with the alleged Russian hacker and Wikileaks . By August, he publicly warns of an ‘October Surprise’ in the form of hacked emails from his Opponent’s campaign chief, John Podesta. Notably, neither the campaign nor Podesta were aware it had taken place. The leaks transpired as promised by Stone just weeks before the election.
Upon taking the oath, the President fires the director of the FBI, James Comey, admitting on television he did so out of concern about the ongoing Russia probe. When his Attorney General recuses himself on the advice of officials, and his deputy appoints Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor, the President spends more than a year railing against all involved – "witch hunt!”, “rigged”, ”hoax”. Shockingly, the President even cast doubt about US intelligence findings about Russian interference standing just metres across from Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference in Helsinki. The tyrant's denials, he cooed, were "strong" and "powerful".
The Trump administration continues to baffle and infuriate both Republicans and Democrats — not to mention US allies — for timidity in the face of Russia’s attacks, notably by slow-walking sanctions leveled against Russians by Congress, and pursuing a foreign policy agenda notable for its ideological proximity to Putin’s — hostile to NATO and the EU, scathing of allies, weak knee for autocrats.
Seven months into office, as investigators sharpen focus on the June 9 meeting, and suspicious details about the gathering continue to emerge in the press, Trump takes charge. Aboard Air Force One en route back from a G-7 Summit, the President personally dictates a statement to the effect the meeting was merely about Russian adoption – hardly a campaign issue, thus it went nowhere. The campaign, then Administration, steadfastly stood by this plainly dubious claim – until last week when Donald Trump ditched the charade in spectacular fashion.
“Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics - and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”-- Twitter — @realdonaldtrump 7:35 AM - Aug 5, 2018
Forget the belligerent tone; this is a simpering confession. The fact the adoptions story was known by all but the most credulous Trump loyalist to be an obvious fib doesn’t diminish its significance as a public admission. Nor does Trump’s erratic tweeting or towering mendacity. The significance lies in this: why, of the 4,229 lies he’s told as President (per the Washington Post), can he not permit this particular one to stand (boldly assuming this is the full and final account)?
The answer seems obvious. Team Trump knows the adoption story will be torn to shreds by Mueller, and continued denials are bound to be exposed by other witness testimonies and other incriminatory evidence almost certainly in Mueller’s hands. So Trump is doing what all media stars learned in the 90s: get ahead of the story, shape the narrative on your own terms, take out the trash. They’re trying to ruin Mueller by leaking spoilers, depriving his report of any suspense, leeching it of news value.
Trump may have relied on advice --or, more likely, reinforcement -- from his latest legal spokesman, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who, like his combustible client, considers himself a master of a dark arts of politics, media and the law. But there is more madness to this method than vice-versa. As GOP consultant and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, Rick Wilson, told me yesterday:
"The idea that you can let the air of the balloon of a bad story is something that worked in the charming pre-internet days of New York City tabloids. Rudy and Trump were both shaped by that culture and that practice. It doesn't work in the era of social media."
To understand why textbook crisis communications tricks from Rudy and Don’s heyday won’t work, consider the trash metaphor. It harkens back to a time when the media cycle was predictable enough for canny operators like Giuliani and Trump to cast themselves as brilliant manipulators, elevating favourable yarns, killing or downplaying the rest. They could, back then, “take out the trash” precisely because the analog-era news cycle gave them the luxury. Try “taking out the trash” these days. You just end up covered in it.
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