London—I barely made it off the set of All Out Politics on Sky News (R. Murdoch, proprietor) this morning when my phone buzzed with an incoming Facebook message: “U are a traitor to your country.”
We were supposed to be discussing Obama’s farewell speech, which struck me less as a valedictory and more, with its ringing call to “forge a new social compact” and explicit recognition that “stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea,” like the campaign speech he should have given four years ago. If he had, and then acted accordingly, we might have spent this morning debating whether President-elect Clinton would be able to improve on her predecessor’s radical egalitarian agenda.
Instead, of course, we wrestled with #Watersportsgate, hampered more than a little by editorial guidelines forbidding us from going into the “grubby details” despite those details—indeed, the full dossier on Trump’s Russian adventures, which has apparently been making the rounds of Washington insiders for weeks—having been published by Buzzfeed last night.
The dossier, which accuses Trump and his campaign of knowingly conspiring with Putin’s government to influence the US election in his favor, in return for an explicit promise “to sideline Russian intervention in the Ukraine as a campaign issue,” raises several fascinating questions, starting with whether Buzzfeed was right to publish a document making “explosive—but unverified—allegations” against the President-elect despite being unable to confirm, or falsify, them.
I believe they were right to do so, even though, as Buzzfeed admitted, they already knew that the material was “not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors.” Given the dossier’s dodgy provenance—supposedly written by a former British intelligence operative originally commissioned by one of Trump’s Republican opponents and later hired by unnamed Democrats—there were good arguments for initially handling it with extreme suspicion, especially for news organizations that hold themselves to a higher standard than the Drudge Report.
But once the dossier was in circulation, among not only reporters on the intelligence and campaign beats but also politicians, intelligence officials, and law-enforcement agents—with President Obama and President-elect Trump both given official briefings on its contents—then yes, the people do have a right to know not just in summary terms but in detail what has been alleged. Even when those details include sexual conduct that many Americans (and the British daytime-television audience) might find shocking—unless, that is, they were fans of John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, which introduced “golden showers” into the (pardon the expression) mainstream way back in 1981.
Diverting as the details are—and given what Trump has not just admitted but boasted of doing in the past, such practices, even if true and captured for posterity by the FSB, are hardly likely to disqualify him—the central questions remain fundamentally political. Because Trump’s resemblance to a broken clock—right about the need to restore American manufacturing, and to seek common ground with Russia on issues ranging from Iran to nuclear proliferation to combating ISIS; wrong on just about everything else—isn’t just a problem for the left. Bernie Sanders seems to have figured out a way to challenge Trump without playing into the narrative of elitist derision; the rest of us are still struggling.
So it came as little surprise that the most cogent comment on Trump’s latest outrage came not from our side, but from National Review, which said: “If Trump can disprove some/any of the specific allegations in the report, it will likely do more to inoculate him than cripple him. If he can’t disprove any of the specific allegations, his presidency will be wounded, perhaps more mortally.”
That seems about right. As Lawfare and many others have pointed out, “the document contains…the kind of facts it should be possible to prove or disprove. This is a document about meetings that either took place or did not take place, stays in hotels that either happened or didn’t,” etc. Whatever the FBI and other government agencies have established to corroborate or discredit the leaked material should be made public. In the meantime, journalism should do its job—not by sniffing Trump’s hotel sheets but by reporting on his, and his campaign’s, contacts with Russian and other foreign government officials and agents.
Although he’s never made this claim—and indeed often forced us to think about it more than we want to—Trump’s sex life is his own affair. But his personal and family business ties to foreign autocrats—whether Russian, Chinese, or Emirati—should have been fully aired long before now. Today’s Twitterstorm doesn’t change that. Nor should it deny even Donald Trump the same presumption of innocence any American would be entitled to (though I wouldn’t want to argue the point with any of the Central Park Five).
And if the most serious charge proves true? If Trump or one of his employees did knowingly conspire with the agents of a hostile power to influence the American election in exchange for promises regarding US foreign policy? Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair for a lot less.