Government shutdown stories aren’t sexy, everyone can see that. Nevertheless, it is curious that the journalists who most loathe Trump are so willing to distract their audiences from a political crisis which polls show is hurting the President, in order to focus again on the exhausting Russia conspiracy, which isn’t. This weekend, we saw another flurry of noisy Trump-Russia scoops. These latest feel thinner than usual. Still, they dominated the airwaves and Twitter feeds of media VIPs.
On Friday, the New York Times related that the FBI ‘became so concerned’ about Trump’s firing of FBI director James B. Comey that they began investigating whether the President was indeed working for Russia. If you feel like you’ve heard that before it is because you have. Republicans have argued that the real scandal is that senior officials were so angry about Comey’s removal that they tried to turn the FBI into a Get Trump machine, and you don’t have to be a Putin-brainwashed Fox News junkie to know what they mean. For the Times, however, the story is good law enforcement officials worried about national security.
The report adds that ‘investigators had watched with alarm as the Republican party softened its convention platform on the Ukraine crisis in a way that seemed to benefit Russia.’ What a sentence! The FBI isn’t meant to concern itself with international relations, yet its investigators are so distressed about a political party holding a foreign-policy position they don’t like that they launch an investigation. And the Times seems to think this noble rather than, say, corrupt or possibly illegal.
Then the Post weighed in with a clunking report that Trump has gone to ‘extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.’ The crux of the story, shrouded somewhat by ambiguous phrasing, seems to be that Trump instructed a translator not to relay details of his conversations with Putin to one or more State Department officials. Cover up! Well, Trump and Putin presumably did discuss matters they didn’t want to be leaked to the press: senior statesmen tend to do that. And one can hardly blame Trump for being a touch paranoid about his own officials spilling sensitive information to the press, especially about Russia. Indeed, Trump’s concern is rather proven by the fact that those same officials are now clearly briefing hacks as to how they weren’t privy to the juicy stuff.
But no, the Post says Trump’s ‘constraints … are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.’
Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution, tells the Post that Trump’s secretive interaction with Putin ‘is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous.’ Hmmm: we the people expect always to discover what world leaders have said to each other, but we are often disappointed. That’s not just a Trump habit, although the difference with Donald is that he shields his talks from his own officials. With another President that could be suspicious, but Trump’s mistrust of his own staff could just be the neurosis that comes after a two-year, establishment-led crusade over his connections to Moscow.
You must be careful these days about what you say in public about Trump-Russia. People start accusing you of being a Russia shill if you suggest the Trump and Putin’s relationship might not be quite as sinister as the media makes out. So let’s be clear:
Russia is probably a criminal kleptocracy, and Trump is an ethically challenged businessman who became President.
But it is the government shutdown that exposes Trump’s limitations as a democratic leader. He’s having a bad start to 2019. But rather than focus on what is harming Trump, the media returns again and again to the idea of impeachment-worthy Trump-Russian collusion, even though – without a damning Mueller report – their stories lack substance.