Russia allegations will scar Trump presidency

Russia allegations will scar Trump presidency

Peter Apps
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 Jan. 11 press conference, Trump branded the allegations “fake news.”

In reality, the situation appears more complex. According to multiple reports, the dossier published late Tuesday last week 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.

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.

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. 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 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. 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 in a way that might prove equally destabilizing.

We may have already seen early signs of this. At his confirmation hearing last Wednesday, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson also signaled a rather tougher than expected line. 

Both Russia and the US 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. 

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.

* This abridged article was first published by Reuters.