It’s still too early to say that any of the material in the Trump dossier is true, or to dismiss it all as false. But even at this early stage, it should be apparent the Trump machine is resilient to the kind of stuff, fact or rumor, that would be ruinous to just about anybody else. You can see this in the press and public reaction to the supposed no-facts-required kompromat bombshell dropped by CNN and Buzzfeed last week.
Unsubstantiated kompromat likely won’t hurt Trump—but it can be and is being used to disorient the public on an already muddled topic of debate: Russian interference in our election. How is this happening and what should be done to counter it?
At Wednesday’s press conference, in response to the “outrageous,” “highly irresponsible” release of the “phony” allegations contained in the dossier now traced to former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, Mike Pence and Donald Trump played a little good cop/bad cop with the media to emphasize both injury and innocence. Pence lectured “the mainstream media” on its “concerted effort . . . to delegitimize this election and to demean our incoming administration,” while Trump took the opportunity to applaud the normally biased press for deeming this “fake news” unworthy of publication.
All the braying aside, it is hardly surprising that these widely available documents were released by someone somewhere. What’s more interesting is that they were not released earlier, even though so many media outlets, this one included, had them for weeks. Also notable is the swiftness with which their release, rather than their subject matter, became a central issue of debate.
Both points—the publication delay occasioned by principled journalists furiously trying to corroborate the allegations, and the scrutiny to which BuzzFeed in particular has been subjected—reveal a lot about the one-way benefits that accrue to Trump as a result of his hostile relationship to facts.
Trump’s penchant for saying as he pleases, irrespective of factual merits, allows him to galvanize his supporters, eat up precious man-hours from journalists and fact-checkers, and (at a minimum) bewilder the many working women and men in this country who are daily bombarded with unprocessable quantities of information and are reasonably inclined to believe the President of the United States when he says things. But as for allegations against Trump—about his conduct, his suspected conduct, his dealings and his suspected dealings—these have none of the normal shelf life of an allegation against a politician, even when they arrive with robust factual support. And to stick at all, they need to be meticulously sourced. What’s more, to the extent they are not meticulously documented (and even sometimes when they are), they elicit howls of rage from Trump and his entourage.
In short, those who balked when Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes asserted on The Diane Rehm Show last November that “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts” can rest assured that facts continue to matter. Facts matter very much—they are a necessary, though apparently insufficient, condition—when the issue involves allegations about Trump’s misbehavior.
This dynamic is important to understand because it is key to the information power shift presently taking place. We are not walking into a formless void, where fake news confuses in all directions and nobody knows what to believe anymore. We are headed into a world of distinctly unequal burdens—one in which the president has a lot of power, more power than anyone else, to shape reality (normal), but radically less interest than anyone else in its truth value (abnormal). It is a world in which facts remain dispositive, such that people must work diligently to verify them, but only when it comes to alleged wrongdoing by the president and his friends. It’s a world in which Trump can spend years baselessly questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency and the weeks before the election insisting the vote will be rigged and that millions voted illegally for his opponent, yet express and foment genuine outrage when Rep. John Lewis questions the legitimacy of Trump’s own election.
Notwithstanding the popular framing, this is not a world of factual anarchy but of factual oligarchy—a picture in which the ultimate seat of power is simultaneously least accountable and most protected when it comes to the demands of proof and verifiability.
I want to suggest that this remarkable informational asymmetry has implications for our national security discourse.
As to this latest case, imagine for a minute that we are gradually becoming predisposed, as a nation, to greet negative allegations about Trump with both a higher propensity to ignore and a consequent higher threshold for what constitutes adequate verification: that is, however persuasive we generally find the rumor mill and whatever our usual margin for doubt, with Trump we are inclined to demand a sound recording, or else it didn’t happen. For this reason, a story that would be explosive about anyone else is not so explosive when it’s about Trump—at least not until we have more, a lot more, information. Even then, we may not care because we have already moved on to the next installment in the Trump saga.
Thus my concern has never been that this story, which Trump from the outset very effectively dismissed as #fakenews, is somehow unfair to our famously flameproof president-elect in the runup to his inauguration. It’s not that I believe in publishing rumors or unverified allegations about public officials. I don’t. But nor do I worry that this bit of opposition research will unjustly hurt him. I worry, rather, that it will help him—specifically, that it will buttress his team’s Russia-threat denial narrative and exacerbate the already existing public confusion about Russian interference in our election. If even some of this material turns out to have no merit, it will be far easier for Trump to dismiss questions about Russia that cry out for serious inquiry and answers.
To prevent this and to combat what may prove a long game of obfuscation, here are two simple points of distinction we should keep clear in our heads.
First, we need to rigorously distinguish between election hacking (what Russia did) and the alleged fruits of its hacking (what Russia has). Trump is going for an indefensible conflation of entirely separate developments—that is, (a) specific, strong evidence of election hacking, which includes the IC’s assessment of Russian motives and involvement with (b) specific, unsubstantiated allegations about stuff Russia has on stuff Trump supposedly did that happens to be consistent with (a). But Trump cannot be allowed to play the victim card and use what is not known or credible about these documents to erode what is known and credible about Russian interference in our election. More particularly, members of Congress cannot be allowed to use the former to decline to thoroughly examine the latter.
If these unverified documents turn out to contain some demonstrably false information, as they very probably do, the Trump administration will fully capitalize on this falsity to undermine or trivialize all Russia-related allegations—even cast them as part of a vast anti-Russia, and by extension anti-Trump, conspiracy designed to delegitimize his claim to the presidency. Trump is already doing some of this. It’s no accident that he is sounding the same theme to discredit this latest set of allegations: he dismissed Russian hacking as a “witch hunt” two weeks ago, and these unverified documents are, he tweeted and reiterated at his press conference last week, more of the same “witch hunt.”
I suspect it’s working—that the conflation is effective. The question of whether Russia really interfered with our election is the one most often posed to me by family and friends back home in the Midwest. To me, that such a question can still be asked at all is staggering and highlights just how effective the Trump team has been in undermining the Obama administration’s and the IC’s firm confirmation of Russian malfeasance. At the press conference last week, for the first time, Trump conceded that he believes Russia hacked the DNC. This was touted by some commentators as a significant step forward. But Trump also sought to whittle that fact to nothing, immediately downplaying it as the kind of thing that any self-interested state does.
We may never learn what Russia has on Trump, if anything, but we know what Russia did.
Second, we need to distinguish kompromat as a political trope from kompromat as a serious subject of national security debate. This is not the first time a U.S. president or presidential candidate has been accused of being unfit because of potential Russian kompromat. Vulnerability-talk, often of a frivolous nature, has a long history, and it’s generally illegitimate speculation masquerading as a serious national security concern.
For example, back in 2013, James “Ace” Lyons (who has since come to prominence as one of the 32 military leaders who endorsed Trump pre-election) warned darkly that Russian intelligence could well have kompromat on President Obama and the “background” (read: place of birth) that “he has taken great pains to hide.” In February 2016, an only marginally less ridiculous, similarly partisan piece appeared on the same partisan site explaining why, because of likely kompromat, Hillary Clinton should never be president of the United States.
But we are in a different place now. Even before the publication of these recent documents, Trump’s situation differed in important respects from the kompromat-trolling of yore.
For one thing, there is nothing speculative about Russia’s involvement in the election, and there have been numerous reports of both Trump Organization financial interactions with Russian banks and Trump efforts to do business in Russia over a long period of time. That’s before you get to the many ties between Trump campaign officials and Russian interests. So what distinguishes the present debate from classic kompromat-vulnerability talk is that we know that Russia has stolen information and we also know that there there is a rich history of interactions during which Russian development of a kompromat file would be a logical course of action. The question is really only whether Russia has, in fact, obtained anything of significance on Trump. The New York Times reported on December 9, and FBI Director James Comey partially confirmed in his testimony last week, that Russian hackers infiltrated the RNC computer systems but chose not to release what they obtained as part of a larger effort that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” was intended to get Trump elected, rather than simply to undermine American democracy generally. In other words, there’s every reason to suspect that Moscow has tried to build a file on Trump; the real question is what Trump may have armed the Kremlin with. Given that we know he has been careless enough to be recorded boasting of his sexual assaults, the question is not a trivial one.
There’s one other reason not to dismiss the possibility of a Russian kompromat file on Trump: The President-elect’s insistent, on-the-record support of Putin, denial in the face of all evidence of Russian involvement in our election, disparagement of the intelligence community, and absurdist reframing of the Russian situation as an exciting emerging corporate partnership (as reflected in his renewed vow to make “some good deals with Russia”). These bizarre and uncharacteristically consistent actions inexorably lead to the question of why. Does Trump really believe Russia has done nothing particularly nefarious here, or does he have some other reason for downplaying these issues?
In short, as long as the President-elect and his cadre continue acting like Putin’s got something on them, the question of whether he does will remain a legitimate subject of inquiry.
We still do not know whether any of the allegations in the Steele dossier are worth the paper they are printed on. But those interested in engaging the process by which the many individual allegations will be debunked or verified in the court of public opinion should be aware of the collateral effects of how we handle that discussion. The marbling of facts and lies, muscle and fat, is nothing less than an essential element of the art of kompromat. It would be the height of irony if we allowed what is false in this instance—and in the cases, perhaps, to come—to take down what we are quite certain is true.