David Bromwich* – London Review of Books
‘Putin Butts in to Claim There Were No Secrets, and Says He’ll Prove It’ – so ran the main headline in the New York Times on 18 May. The subject was Donald Trump’s supposed revelation of foreign intelligence assets when he met with Russian officials in the Oval Office. It isn’t yet clear if anything dangerous was done, but the US media were showcasing their heavy artillery with a leak of their own, which had to have come from the White House staff or intelligence agents on the scene. Mostly, however, the article seemed to be an excuse to deploy the expression ‘Putin Butts In’ – a cut below the diction once permitted in the Times. This descent into brashness, which teeters on the brink of open contempt, has been a feature of American media coverage of Trump ever since January; it is growing shriller and more indiscriminate, working up to a presumptive climax no one has imagined with clarity. Impeachment is the constitutional name for the fast finale they are hoping for; the idea is that the brass and cymbals will soon enter, lawyers and good spies, private detectives and who knows what else – and out the door goes Trump.
The centre-left media went to sleep after the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986-87, dozed through the Clinton years, and were half-asleep and nodding when they approved Cheney and Bush’s war in Iraq and Obama and Clinton’s war in Libya. For obscure reasons, they have been quite certain that Western dismantling of yet another Arab country, Syria, is the surest path to a sane policy in the Middle East. All the mainstream outlets, with CNN and the Times at their head, have now re-emerged as anti-government centres of news, opinion, and news perceptibly mingled with opinion. But they are new to the work of ‘resistance’ and it shows. The Times on 27 May ran a lead story by Maggie Haberman, Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, headlined in diminishing type: ‘Kushner Is Said to Have Mulled Russia Channel – Trump Tower Meeting – Aim was a Secret Means for Communications During Transition.’ Those lines say all that the story has to say – the channel was never established. But they strung it out to seven short paragraphs based on a leak from ‘three people with knowledge of the discussion’. Fourteen more paragraphs followed rehearsing the likely, possible or conjectured relations between Trump’s associates and various Russians, weaving in the name of Kushner as an intermittent reminder. The Times speculation was prompted by an earlier report in the Washington Post: Kushner wanted special Russian facilities to prevent intrusion by US intelligence, in order to conduct transitional discussions with Russia. A strategic misfire on Kushner’s part; but no less questionable was the assumption guiding the story: any plan for back-channel privacy is properly viewed as an attempt to dodge the civic duty of all Americans to submit to US surveillance. Now that we know what we know about Putin, nobody should be free of surveillance: not the president or his advisers or his cabinet; and surely not members of Congress, either. And federal or state judges, and ordinary citizens – why not? The age of detesting Trump is the age of reliance on the deep state and trust in the ‘intelligence community’. If they can’t save us, who will? They need all the powers they have been given if they are to achieve what they must.
On 29 May, the Times published another front-page Kushner story, this one by Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman and Sharon LaFraniere. The attack now began at the beginning – ‘The most successful deal of Jared Kushner’s short and consequential career in real estate and politics involves one highly leveraged acquisition: a pair of adjoining offices a few penny-loafer paces from his father-in-law’s desk in the White House’ – and went on to identify Kushner as a ‘princeling’ who has seen ‘his foothold on that invaluable real estate shrink amid revelations that he has faced new scrutiny’. Then things got personal: ‘his preppy aesthetic, sotto-voce style’, his ‘preference for backstage manoeuvring’, an ‘unfailing self-regard’ and the way ‘he quickly forms fixed opinions about people, sometimes based on scant evidence’ (no evidence was given for this opinion about Kushner’s opinions: no evidence and no source). ‘He also has a habit,’ unnamed sources were allowed to dictate once more, ‘of disappearing during crises.’ In an essay on the flash journalism of the 1920s, H.L. Mencken observed:
There are times and occasions when rumour is almost as important as the truth – when a newspaper’s duty to its readers requires it to tell them not only what has happened, but also what is reported, what is threatened, what is merely said. What I contend is simply that such quasi-news, such half-baked and still dubious news, should be printed for exactly what it is – that it ought to be clearly differentiated from news that, by an overwhelming probability, is true.
The unhappy pattern anyway is starting to be noticed. The Times published a sharp letter to the editor a few days later that noticed how the paper had now crossed the line separating news analysis from invective.
This has happened across the board, in the culture of the Trump presidency: you see it in the newspapers, the magazines and in television. Mainstream media are speaking almost in unison; they are out of control with a consistency that shows they have forgotten what control feels like. PEN, for example, now runs a Daily Alert on Rights and Expression. A typical stream of headlines on 1 May – under the subheading ‘PEN America’s take on today’s most pressing threats to free expression’ – included such items as ‘The night Donald Trump failed to break the White House correspondents’ dinner’: ‘While Donald Trump was in Pennsylvania holding a campaign-style rally, Washington DC celebrated a night of journalism without him. The White House correspondents’ dinner gave each guest a “First Amendment” pin, while Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” praised the work of local newspapers.’ Such was the alert from the US branch of a major international anti-censorship institution. Four weeks earlier, PEN announced that its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which went to Charlie Hebdo in 2015, would be given in 2017 to the two million persons who participated in the women’s march against Trump.
President Trump, monster and scapegoat, is too rash in his overall demeanour, too uncalibrated in his words and gestures, too ill-adapted to the routines of politics to carry credit even when he is speaking common sense. The Democrats tossed his idea that better relations with Russia ‘would not be a bad thing’ into the general stew of his repulsive ideas on taxes and immigration, and Republicans ignored it as an indigestible ingredient. For now, as Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Intelligence Committee has acknowledged, there is no evidence to support the view that his attitude to Russia is part of a conspiracy that implicates him in Russian hacking of the 2016 election. That there are links between Trump and his real-estate friends and the Russian oligarchs is extremely likely: oligarchs of all nations, but Russia in particular, are the movers in that market, and Trump’s credit on Wall Street ran out long ago. Russian money is probably behind some of his precarious loans; and the Russian government keeps track of Russian money. But the US media, and a great many Democrats with them, have been running far ahead of the game and treating the connection as a certainty which ought to assure the collapse of the Trump administration in the near future.
The firing of the FBI director James Comey was the event that brought suspicions to a pitch that will be hard to maintain, and equally hard to scale down. Much of the provocation came from the multiple explanations offered by Trump. Comey was fired, he said at first, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email investigation; but he had only fired him because his deputy attorney general and attorney general had advised him to; but they were not the efficient cause after all, since he, Trump, had grown dissatisfied with Comey’s ‘showboating’; and more important, as was well known, Comey was incompetent and the Bureau under his leadership a total mess. Folded into each alternative explanation was the assumption that Comey was not fired because of the Russia investigation, along with a curious mention of the director’s reassurance that Trump was not personally under investigation. Three days after the sacking, Trump tweeted a threat to Comey in gangster grammar: he better hope their conversations were not taped. A final example of the monkeying around that many people think should seal Trump’s fate occurred when he invited the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to the Oval Office. Trump barred the White House press corps (but not the Russian media) and told Lavrov that since he had sacked Comey, the Russia investigation was at last off his back. The sequence – you do need the whole sequence – is typical of Trump. He can’t walk a straight line, even on a pattern he has rehearsed, without a ballet step in the middle that strikes him as clever in the moment. Thus he undermines the presentation; and something else has to be tried in a hurry.
Trump won election to the highest office in the US government by heaping contempt on government. In this, he confirmed and strengthened a tendency of the party he ran with, going back as far as the Reagan administration. The Democrats by contrast remain the party of what-government-can-do-for-you; and a substantial mass of their rank and file denies his legitimacy. He stole the election, they say; it was handed to him by Comey, or by Putin, or by an electoral college whose numbers have no right to cancel the votes of a majority of three million people. The trick, Democrats feel, is somehow to delegitimate Trump and the government he leads (it isn’t a real government) and then move in to take his place, but with a government that has somehow been relegitimated. Apart from the Republican Freedom Caucus blocking Trump’s first modifications of Obamacare and the push by the neoconservatives McCain and Graham for immediate US military assertion against Russia, there has been almost no sign among Republicans of any deviation from an opportunistic solidarity with the president. The Republicans own both houses of Congress as well as the presidency and the Supreme Court. In this situation delegitimation by the Democrats would require them to renounce their own allegiance to constitutional democracy.
The clearest statements on Russian interference, from an authority known for telling the truth (and having some relevant truths to tell), were heard in James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June. ‘It was an active measures campaign,’ he said, ‘driven from the top of that government.’ The eruption was startling and unmistakable: ‘It is not a close call. That happened. That is about as unfake as you can possibly get.’ Nor did he feign a seemly doubt about why he was sacked: ‘I was fired because of the Russia investigation,’ and ‘the endeavour was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.’ Comey’s repeated assurance to Trump that he was not ‘personally’ under investigation – something he confirmed at the hearing – depended on a legalism that could mar an otherwise convincing indictment. He mentioned that one of the seven or eight FBI leaders he spoke with had objected to the usage, because while technically true, it gave a false impression. In this respect the Jesuitical emphasis – Trump was not personally under investigation – resembled the assurance given in the public media by intelligence leaders (and by Comey in particular while he was still FBI director) to the effect that it was flatly false that Obama had ever ordered a wiretap of Trump. Again, the point was technically true. But the apparent honesty of the assurance took advantage of a careless anachronism in Trump’s language: wiretaps ordered on individuals belong to the espionage of fifty years ago. Obama, of course, didn’t order a wiretap of Trump by name, but the Trump campaign, including Trump Tower facilities, was under NSA surveillance; that would have included Trump, and it would have included phones: Obama could know this by deduction even if he wasn’t directly informed. Since the intelligence services are part of the executive branch, he could have been shown, or have asked to see, the evidence on Trump at any time. A similar pretence is kept up across a surprisingly wide range of mainstream reports – ‘surprisingly’ if you consider the recentness of the Snowden revelations. The CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer thought it only decent to show some bewilderment when Senator Rand Paul said, in an interview in mid-June, that Trump may well have been spied on and that he thought himself under surveillance too. We know, if we can bear to think it, that everyone is surveyed: that was the meaning of the Prism and XKeyscore programmes. Obama never renounced them, nor has Trump. They are there for use or abuse on the part of the executive branch.
Two circumstances favour the conclusion the squadrons of Trump’s accusers are driving at: namely, that he knows particular things about the connections between himself, his campaign and Russian interests which he wants to hide because they place him in legal and political jeopardy. The first is his firing of three people in the justice system who were known to have had a long immersion in Trump-related data: Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who had once been assured by Trump that he could keep his job; the acting US attorney general, Sally Yates; and Comey. The second is the schedule of the last two terminations. On 29 December, Trump’s nominee as National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke on the phone with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about the possibility of sanctions relief for Russia. On 26 January, Yates informed the White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was in legal jeopardy and had made statements ‘we knew not to be the truth’. (Among other things he had lied to the vice president about never having consulted with Russians.) McGahn summoned Yates back on 27 January and wondered why it mattered to ‘DOJ if one White House official lies to another’. ‘It wouldn’t really be fair of us,’ Yates replied, ‘to tell you this and then expect you to sit on your hands.’ McGahn then asked to see the evidence; Yates said she would see about getting permission. It was on the same day, 27 January, that, quite suddenly, Trump called up Comey and invited him to have dinner at the White House: the dinner at which he would ask the FBI director if he could count on his loyalty, and would receive a tactical reply, stressing honesty rather than loyalty. On 30 January, Yates called McGahn back to tell him he could ‘come over and review the underlying evidence’. In her testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee – a presentation extraordinary for its clarity and probity – she added that she never knew if he came, because that was her last day in office; she was fired by Trump on 30 January, the ostensible reason being her refusal to enforce his anti-Muslim immigration order.
It has been reported that 9 February was the day Vice President Pence first heard that Flynn had lied about speaking with Kislyak. On 13 February, Flynn resigned, and the day after Trump asked his attorney general, his adviser Jared Kushner, and others to leave the room so that he could talk to Comey alone. ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,’ Trump said. ‘He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ An odd, almost extracurricular point that draws attention only when you think about it, was Trump’s telling Comey that he didn’t mind if some of his satellites were casualties in the Russia investigation. Trump, in short, was willing for his associates to be exposed and punished, if it would get the Russia business off his back. During Comey’s testimony this was taken by Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, as a likely expression of Trump’s belief in his own innocence, and his law-abiding readiness to expose the guilty – an interpretation Comey went along with. But the unexpected emphasis – it’s OK for you to arrest my satellites – could as well have been a signal: ‘I don’t mind your taking anyone else as a scapegoat, so long as you leave me in the clear.’
There is much more than nothing here. And the legal-investigative team put together by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and now special counsel appointed to investigate Russian interference, includes lawyers with formidable competence in the scrutiny of money laundering and ‘financial forensics’ generally. A certain doubt persists, largely because despite the long series of tantalising hints, so far little has come of all the fuss. The lack of evidence on Trump himself is puzzling after the strenuous emphasis of Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan; this looks like another sign that impeachment is not something to count on. ‘Foreign emoluments’ is the most plausible charge, but the phrase has a distant sound and one of the words will need explaining. And yet, the idea of a left-liberal-engineered overthrow of Trump, assisted by the intelligence community and lawyers of great genius, has a tremendous, unquenchable charm for the media. Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC news host, leans forward and upward five nights a week in near euphoria at the prospect of the next unwilling witness, the next Trump associate, the next recovered document or ‘new development’ that will bring us one step closer to putting this president in handcuffs and shackles.
They may pin their hopes on the intelligence community and eventually the lawyers, but what will maintain the balance of the state in the meantime? The answer that seems agreed on by moderates of both parties is: the generals. And this is assented to even by a large fraction of the ‘resistance’ media – on what evidence it would be hard to say. Americans in the past few months have come to speak in terms of the most extravagant trust and gratitude about the presence in the Trump administration of the secretary of defence, General James Mattis. He is said to have been a responsible commander with a steady temper; and no doubt these are welcome traits in the vicinity of Trump. He is also the general who led the second siege of Falluja, the most destructive battle of the Iraq War; and he directed the exoneration of almost all the Marines who committed the worst recorded atrocity of that war, the Haditha Massacre. Trump’s delegation of authority to the generals for deciding all particulars of hostile engagements in Syria and Iraq may mark the first time such a thing has been done in US history; it is certainly the first time it has been admitted in public; and it goes against the spirit of constitutional checks and limitations. Whatever the fancy bookkeeping of Bush and Obama (turning on such words as ‘authorisation’ and ‘international norms’), the US today is not legally at war with any country, and generals are understood to make local decisions regarding foreign policy only when commanding an army against a declared wartime enemy.
The compulsion to convict Trump of something definite, something dire, even if not yet a criminal offence, reached a sort of climax on 25 June when an entire back page of the Times Sunday Week in Review was transformed into an enormous zero-shaped pattern entitled ‘Trump’s Lies’, under the byline of two reporters, David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson. The dates of more than a hundred ‘lies’ were printed in boldface, the text of the lie in quotation marks and the correction in parenthesis. Most of the lies, however, were what anyone would call opportunistic half-truths, scattershot promises, changes of tack with a denial that any change had taken place and, above all, hyperbolic exaggerations. Trump uses words like ‘tremendous’ and numbers like ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’ in a way that evacuates them of all meaning, but this belongs to the category of rhetorical twisting and pulling in which all politicians indulge. His daft attempt to inflate the size of the crowd at his inaugural seemed an example of reality denial, but it becomes a lie, fairly so-called, when measured against his slander of those who conveyed the verifiable truth. Again, his statement that ‘we’re the highest-taxed nation’ was part of a spew, false and meant as a hyperbolic version of ‘our taxes are too high,’ a sort of statement that exacerbates (and panders to) the usual indifference to details among his followers: a bad thing in a president. But the Times article laid much stress on doubtful instances such as Trump saying that Obama had wiretapped him or that ‘the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election.’ He is mostly right, there, even if the word ‘fabricated’ is wrong; there had been no official notice about collusion until Comey’s announcement before the intelligence committee on 20 March; before that, it was a widespread rationalisation of defeat by the Democrats. And though the circumstantial links between Trump associates and Russia show that the story was not fabricated out of thin air, convincing evidence, to repeat, has not yet been made public.
‘Putin derangement syndrome’, as the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi called it, has entered the culture with the irresistibility of a fast-spreading rash. The Late Show host Stephen Colbert went on a rehearsed rant directed at Trump, in which the element of self-parody vanished at a point somewhere before this sentence: ‘The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.’ The stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin posed with a bloody severed head in the likeness of Trump. Until 18 June the Public Theater in New York was performing a version of Julius Caesar in which Caesar was made to look and gesticulate like Trump. Of course it trashed the play, since you render the hesitation of Brutus unintelligible if Caesar becomes the odious Trump-monster instead of the dim, weak, vain and vaguely blustering man a little past his prime that the text portrays. Obsession with Trump has become an excuse for almost any vulgarity. Also for testing the third rail of fame in the cause of experimental valour and affected rebellion: Johnny Depp, introducing his film The Libertine at Glastonbury Festival, asked the audience: ‘When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?’ We are already used to seeing these provocations followed a day or two later by an apology as insincere as it is ineffectual.
The best recourse of sanity to those who would rather defeat Trump than disgust his supporters may be simply to recall that he has at his back the massed weight and momentum of the Republican Party. It doesn’t much matter who is making use of whom: they are not about to part company, while the Democrats have to defend the shrinking redoubt of just 18 of 50 statehouses and a respectable but thoroughly confused minority in Congress. It is Republicans today who see themselves as makers of a revolution. The recent Democratic presidents, at some cost to the character of the party, espoused an ethic of moderation and trimming compromise. Doubtless the same predisposition played a large part in Obama’s decision to suppress what he knew of Russian interference before the 2016 election. Presumptive stability was a good thing in itself: why roil people’s temper with one more irritation? They need to believe that the system works – that was how he scored it. The assumption anyway was that Hillary would win; and fear of a rigged election was Trump’s issue.
Nothing now would better serve the maturity and the invigoration of the Democrats than to give up any hope of sound advice or renewal from Bill or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They were pleasant to think about, but their politics have turned out wrong, and there’s nothing they can do for us now. Democrats have lost all four special elections since November; if Trump ran again tomorrow, there is a strong probability he would win. Michael Moore tweeted on 21 June, after the loss by Jon Ossoff, the latest Democratic hope, to a Republican opponent in Georgia: ‘DNC & DCCC [Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] has NO idea how 2 win cause they have no message, no plan, no leaders.’ An exclusive concern with the Russia connection may suggest that Trump is faltering now and shaken, but on 26 June the Supreme Court temporarily upheld his revised ‘Muslim ban’, a 90-day suspension of travel from six Arab countries, along with a 120-day ban on all refugees, except in cases where the applicant has a bona fide relationship to someone in the US. The anti-Trump left and centre may hope for vindication when the court hears the case argued in autumn, but this in truth is a tactical victory for Trump: by the time it comes up again, the designated time of suspension may have passed; and the ban was only meant to stay in force while the government carries out a reappraisal of its vetting process. You may curse Putin and Comey and misogyny and Wisconsin, but Trump is marching through the departments and agencies with budget cuts and policy changes that will be felt for years to come. Trump is the name of a cause and not just a person, and you can only fight him with another cause. The name of it might be climate change.
*David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, TLS, and many other U.S. and British journals. He is a frequent contributor of political blog posts on the Huffington Post.