The presidency of Donald J. Trump, with its ludicrous inauguration crowd estimates, 4 AM tweets, and non-stop gaffes, is sometimes difficult for grownups to take seriously in any sort of sustained way. But with the allegation that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, attempted to establish a secret communications link to the Kremlin, the story has taken a far darker turn. It is no longer Steve Martin’s jerk stumbling around Washington; it’s now closer to Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate.
One senses discomfort and a groping for proper explanations among the prestige media’s talking heads. On MSNBC, Brian Williams interviewed author Jon Meacham, who serves as a sort of ambulance driver whenever establishment views need to be rushed to the scene. He compared Kushner’s behavior to President Kennedy’s contacting Nikita Krushchev through a back channel during the Cuban missile crisis, and FDR’s use of Harry Hopkins as a roving ambassador without portfolio. To be sure, Meacham made the comparison unfavorably, suggesting that Kushner had pecuniary motives.
But bringing up such examples as an analogy fails on many levels. The glaring difference was that Roosevelt and Kennedy were sitting presidents of the United States, one prosecuting a world war and the other trying to avoid nuclear annihilation. Kushner, on the Trump transition team, was not in charge: he had no lawful authority to do anything of a diplomatic nature, much less treat with an adversarial government under U.S. sanctions in order to use their secret communications. Trump and his handlers, being ignorant of history, would probably never have thought of those historical examples as an alibi, but Meacham has now furnished them with “diplomatic back channel” precedents that we can be sure the White House press office will trot out as a rationale.
An interesting aside from Meacham was his observation that the poor, presumably addlepated American public, preoccupied as they are with just paying their mortgages, might have trouble grasping the implications of the Kushner revelation. This expression of the soft bigotry of low expectations dovetails nicely with the standard Republican talking point stating that, gosh, all this Russia stuff is so convoluted and confusing that ordinary folk in Real America just don’t care about it.
To be fair to the media, there have been contrasting voices. John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that if an intelligence officer had engaged in Kushner’s purported behavior, it would be considered espionage. CNN’s Dana Bash, by contrast, put on a striking display of clueless gullibility in her efforts to create extenuating circumstances around the Kushner-Kislyak incident as reported. Kushner, in view of his tender age of 36, was “naïve” to discuss setting up a back channel employing the communications of an adversarial power’s intelligence services. Is a high-rolling New York real estate mogul someone we normally associate with gormless naiveté? Particularly when he was the driving force behind dumping New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from leadership of the Trump transition team as an act of sweet revenge for Christie’s having prosecuted Kushner’s father? The fact that the report said that Lieutenant General Mike Flynn — who received payments(that he failed to report) from Russian entities — was present during the call, also suggests that this was something other than a rookie mistake.
But we must award the championship for prestige media apologetics to Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’s London bureau chief. On CNN, he declared that Kushner’s secretive discussion, (reportedly omitted on his security clearance application, a potential felony) was “not collusion, just statecraft,” and made it sound as if the Trump team had a justifiable, rather than guilty, reason not to trust the U.S. government agencies that Trump would soon lead.
No doubt all newsrooms have a policy against seeming to convict a person in the media. But it should equally apply that reporters and commentators are under no obligation to dream up all manner of exculpatory scenarios. If the general public is in fact confused by the complexity of allegations about Russian interference in U.S. elections, that circumstance may stem in part from the media’s excessive caveating, dragging in of side issues and irrelevancies, and its obsessive need for false-equivalence “balancing.” Understanding the Watergate conspiracy does not hinge on whether the flower pot Bob Woodward placed a red flag in to signal his source contained geraniums or hydrangeas, or whether Richard Nixon’s phlebitis was acting up.
The news that started it all, the Washington Post’s reporting on the supposed back channel request, contained a caveat of its own. What if Ambassador Kislyak was salting his reports with disinformation? One supposes that theory must be considered, but it makes no sense. Why would the Russians fabricate a story that could only discredit an incoming administration whose policies towards Russia and NATO the Kremlin favored? The adverse publicity would make it more, not less, difficult for the Trump administration to lift the economic sanctions that were inconveniencing the oligarchs around President Vladimir Putin. They might try to discredit Hillary Clinton or Emanuel Macron, certainly, but not Trump and his paladins.
It is no secret that diminishing NATO’s strength and influence is the top priority of Russian foreign policy; from the Kremlin’s point of view, the alliance’s influence in Eastern Europe is a significant threat to its interests. It is hardly demonizing Russia to point this out: states have differing interests, and come into conflict over them. One could also observe that it is in the interests of both the United States and Russia to develop a tolerable modus vivendi whereby such conflicts as arise could be mitigated.
But it is pretty clear by now that Trump is looking for something altogether different than that. As Josh Marshall points out, on his European tour Trump behaved in a manner precisely designed to sow discord and distrust within the Atlantic Alliance. This aspect was not a feature of the significant improvement of ties between the United States and the Soviet Union in President Reagan’s second term and during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. The gratuitous frictions Trump is creating certainly benefit Moscow, but it is far from clear what America gains. As Marshall says, “Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own.”
Even the body language on display during the NATO summit, when Trump was in proximity to British Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of America’s closest ally, stood in sharp contrast to the yuk-fest that ensued when he chatted with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office (a meeting from which U.S. media were pointedly excluded, but one in which the Russian state-owned news organization TASS was allowed). To find something comparable in diplomacy, one would have to go back to photos of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, where we find the normally stone-faced and inscrutable Stalin beaming like the cat that swallowed the canary.
Maybe, as Morgan Freeman said in The Big Bounce, sometimes things are exactly as they appear. Perhaps the saga of Trump and the Russians is not some convoluted shaggy dog story, but is just what it looks like. What do we do then? Human beings are not comfortable thinking about what they regard as the unthinkable.
But black-swan events, like 9/11, the global financial collapse, or maybe someday, another Chicxulub asteroid event, do happen. Is it thinkable that a president of the United States could commit treason? Or is the office of the president, accoutered as it is with two centuries of executive powers and privileges and accustomed to deference in foreign policy from the other two branches of government, for all practical purposes immune to the charge? In the case at hand, does the will of the king constitute the law of land?
Apart from the Civil War, the only treason case involving a very senior official was the treason trial of Aaron Burr. That is not quite comparable, however, as Burr was a former vice president, not a sitting president. But author Ken Hughes has made a compelling case in his book Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate that Richard Nixon, while running for president in 1968, committed treason when he engaged Anna Chennault to induce the South Vietnamese government to stonewall the Paris Peace Talks and improve his chances of defeating Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey. Sifting through the Johnson and Nixon tapes and declassified documents, Hughes further reveals that then-president Lyndon B. Johnson knew about it and characterized it as treason. Yet he talked himself out of going public with it because the American people were not mature enough to hear something so shocking as to shake their faith in the system.
We have the succeeding Nixon presidency and the Watergate conspiracy as a tribute to LBJ’s low estimation of the public’s capacity to absorb less than edifying news about their politicians. Ironically, Watergate itself began in Nixon’s paranoia about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a retrospective analysis of the Vietnam War. According to Hughes, Nixon brooded that the authors of the papers, working under a Democratic administration, may have known something about the Nixon-Chennault back channel and were thus in a position to damage him.
Johnson’s timely intervention might have spared us not only the trauma of Watergate; conceivably a Vietnam peace agreement could have been signed several years earlier and spared countless lives and immense destruction. LBJ feared the American people’s disillusion if they knew the truth. Perhaps it is telling that a half century on, pundits like Jon Meacham imply that the people are inattentive dullards who can’t grasp the truth. It reminds us of what Marshall McLuhan said: “Only the small secrets need to be protected. The large ones are kept secret by public incredulity.”
A well-known opinion columnist has just cautioned me that “treason” is a powerful word, and one should not dissipate its power at this early stage. That is something to consider carefully. But “obstruction of justice” is also a powerful phrase, and the media appears to have surmounted their inhibition about using it.
Like other wrenching events in our history — Southern secession, the Great Depression and the associated rise of totalitarianism, the turbulence of the Vietnam era — the Trump presidency is a Rorschach test of the character of the American people. The president’s fate lies in the hands of our elected officials, but facts and evidence will not make them move unless and until the people send an unmistakable signal that compels them to move.