There hasn’t been a crash-through-or-crash presidency such as this since Richard Nixon.
But while the Nixon administration took more than three years to get to Watergate, it seems that after just weeks in office, Donald Trump is already on the slippery slope.
In the case of Watergate it was the cover-up and not the actual break-in that was Nixon’s undoing. In the case of Russiagate, the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers does amount to an electronic break-in – and amidst a swirl of allegations and myriad investigations of Trump’s Russia connections and his seeming infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, this President is already engaged in a cover-up.
The dots are there. It remains to be seen if, and how, they can be joined.
But as Trump would put it, something’s up when US intelligence reports, reportedly relying on the hard evidence of intercepted communications, indicate a remarkable level of contact between Trump’s campaign team and other of his associates with figures in Russia during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.
At this point in this crisis – and that’s what it has become – two issues and two stories dominate.
The issues are the Russia story, which keeps getting bigger, and the right of the media to investigate it.
The stories, each a blockbuster, include a February 14 report by The New York Times, which revealed “members of [Trump’s] 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election”; and a February 9 report by The Washington Post, which revealed that national security adviser Michael Flynn “privately discussed US sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador … during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials”.
The cover-up strategy has been on display for some time – Trump’s denunciation of the “fake” news media and his disparaging of the intelligence agencies as incompetent.
And in recent days the tactics have come into sharper focus – declare the media “enemies of the American people”; bar reporters representing “enemy” news outlets from White House briefings; and press-gang intelligence officials and key members of Congress to compromise themselves as anonymous spinmeisters for Trump.
The White House confirmed on Friday that after a failed effort to get the FBI to “knock down” the Times report, it had taken to marshalling intelligence officials and legislators to cold-call media outlets, or to have the administration offer them to reporters as sources who would dismiss the report.
But as reported by the Post, the recipient of one of the calls said the would-be sources would not answer substantive questions and insisted on being identified only as “a senior intelligence official in the Trump administration” or “a senior member of the intelligence community”.
This White House ring-around followed an exchange between Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus and FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, in which the White House claims McCabe told Priebus: “I want you to know [that the Times story] is BS.”
Priebus subsequently gave a series of interviews, claiming he had been authorised “by the top levels of the intelligence community” to debunk the Times report on the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia as “overstated” and “complete garbage”.
Engaging intelligence officials is a breach of the practice of keeping those services above partisan politics. And the integrity of current congressional investigations is brought into question by the identity of some of the congressmen who were enlisted – like Republican senator Richard Burr and representative Devin Nunes, who, respectively, are the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
That these calls to the media were carefully planted distractions was revealed by NBC, which reported that in challenging the Times report, the federal officials questioned an aspect of the story – not all of the report and certainly not its thrust.
Their issue was not that there had been communications between the campaign and Russia, but the Times’ identification of some of those on the Moscow end of the calls as Russian intelligence agents.
But that reporters make mistakes does not debunk the entirety of their work. In their deservedly celebrated coverage of Watergate, the Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were almost undone by a couple of critical mistakes – but that they were wrong in those instances didn’t mean that there had been no break-in and no cover-up.
Similarly, The Guardian’s sensational revelations on News International’s bribery and phone-hacking scandal included a series of errors – and that The Guardian was wrong in those instances didn’t mean that the phones of the royal family and other celebrities were not being hacked.
In the same vein, little attention is paid to an absurd contradiction in Trump’s twin attacks on the media and the intelligence agencies – the “fake” media are “the enemy of the American people” and the agencies are incompetent because they can’t stop leaks across government, much less from within their own ranks.
But how can that be? On the one hand, the President claimed in a speech on Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the media engages in fabrication – “they have no sources; they just make ’em up when there are none”.
But on the same day he tweeted: “The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time. They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW.”
And on Flynn’s demise it was clear Trump worried more about the truth than the fakery of what was being leaked: “It’s a criminal action – criminal act – and it’s been going on for a long time. Before me. But now it’s really going on.”
Real or Fabricated?
So are the offending news reports fabrications, or are they based on genuine classified information?
In its February 9 report that revealed the lie in Flynn’s denial about talking to the Russians, the Post was anything but reckless – it was based on interviews with no less than nine current and former administration officials.
But here’s Trump banging on at CPAC: “There’re no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, ‘Give me a break.’ Because I know the people. I know who they talk to. There were no nine people. But they say ‘nine people’. And somebody reads it, and they think, ‘Oh, nine people. They have nine sources.’ They make up sources. They’re very dishonest people.”
But if the sources were made up, if the reporting was so dishonest, it would have been unconscionable for Trump to show Flynn the door. Yet that is precisely what he did.
On Thursday, White House strategist Stephen Bannon, the man who the President channels as he lashes out, framed the “corporatist media” as the enemy in setting out the ground rules for this administration: “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
There’s irony too in Trump’s belated crusade against unnamed sources in news reports. “I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources,” he told CPAC. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”
Trump as his Own Source
Apart from his own administration’s habit of offering officials as unnamed sources, the President has often been his own unnamed source. Linda Stasi, who covered him for the New York tabloids in the 1990s, told the Times: “He used to be the one leaking!
“He was leaking about himself. He would call up with fake accents and pretend it wasn’t him. He would tell us 100 times: ‘Now listen, I’m going to tell you something, but it didn’t come from me.'”
Fight on his Hands
Trump has a fight on his hands alright. But his biggest problem is that it is he, not the media, that drives suspicion about this administration – his latent authoritarianism feeds into his fawning over Putin, which feeds into intelligence leaks that can’t simply be brushed aside.
The reek of a cover-up exacerbates all that, particularly if the intelligence services are being enlisted to that end.
“I doubt that there was any enthusiasm from the intelligence leadership to get involved in this in the first place,” former CIA director Michael Hayden, a Bush appointee who held senior security posts in Republican and Democratic administrations, told the Post.
Observing that intelligence analysts were more accustomed to “precise” language as opposed to Priebus’ blunt denials, Hayden said: “Think Benghazi here – this is what happens when the intel guys are leaned on for the narrative of the political speakers. The latter have different rules, words, purposes. Getting intel into that mix always ends unhappily, [and] it looks like we just did.”
Today’s Washington is not London, almost a decade ago, when The Guardian was alone in pursuing the phone hacking scandal; or Nixon’s Washington, where the Post did the bulk of the heavy lifting to expose Watergate.
In 2011, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote of the isolation he and reporter Nick Davies felt as they challenged the might of Rupert Murdoch: “Life was getting a bit lonely at The Guardian. Nick Davies had been alerted that [News International CEO Rebekah] Brooks had told colleagues that the story was going to end with ‘Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy’.”
In the end, it was Murdoch’s News of the World that was forced to fold.
And this time around, the Post is not alone. The broad press pack has deep connections across the administration and agencies and the approach Trump took to planting gossip in New York tabloids in the past is proving poor training for wrestling with Washington reporters who pursue issues of national importance.
Long before Trump’s Saturday tweet that he’d skip this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, at which a succession of presidents have allowed themselves to be the butt of cutting humour, many media houses had announced that they would not be booking their customary tables for this year’s event.
Writing at the weekend, the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush, now being immortalised with regular takeoffs by Saturday Night Live, and Michael Grynbaum depicted Trump as a social media master up against the power of ink and pixels.
“To some extent, the clash with the press was inevitable,” they write.
“Mr Trump may be noisier and more confrontational than many of his predecessors, but he is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — that the iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy is simply too powerful to bully.”
As Watergate imploded, Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell infamously warned that publication of a particular story would result in the Post’s then publisher Katharine Graham having her “tit caught in a big fat wringer”.
There isn’t a wringer big enough to accommodate the publishers, editors and reporters who see it as a professional duty to tug at all the loose threads dangling from this administration.