“It Feels Like It Changes Everything”

Masha Gessen’s veteran Putin-watcher status and fierce intelligence have made her invaluable in this time of the Kremlin annexation of the White House, though I disagreed with her in March when she argued that Russiagate should be back-burnered in favor of the more mundane outrages emanating from the Oval Office on an almost daily basis:

Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why lies about Russian espionage are a more important to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.•

Mountains of information have been moved in the four months since, with Gessen altering her thinking somewhat after this week’s revelation that Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to potentially collect dirt on Hillary Clinton, which was, as the Gladstone “invite” stated, part of the Russian effort to install the senior Trump into the White House. I’m not sure if we’ve passed the preface of this scandal, perhaps the biggest political transgression in American history, but we’re still at least in the early chapters with far bigger shocks yet to arrive.

The opening of Gessen’s latest piece for the NYRB:

Some revelations aren’t very revealing. Following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s email correspondence with publicist Rob Goldstone, we have learned that the Trump campaign would have been happy to receive from the Russian government damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Indeed they loved the idea. But we already knew that. In July 2016—six weeks after the Goldstone exchange—Donald Trump Sr. addressed the Putin government directly, in a news conference: “I tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you can find the thirty thousand emails that are missing.” In effect, he openly invited the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email—which is far more than Donald Jr. welcomed in secret.

And still, the revelation is shocking. Indeed, it feels like it changes everything. After months of talk about what it would take to get Trump impeached, analysts are calling this the “smoking gun” that could actually bring his downfall. Why does the occasion feel so momentous (other than because we want it to be)? After all, we learned only that Don Jr. said in confidence roughly the same thing that his father said for all the world to hear. But the news has been as shocking as it has because, after all this time, we still have not learned to take Trump’s public utterances seriously.

Trump’s public statements and tweets pose an obvious challenge to conventional interpretation because he lies so often and so blatantly. (A recent New York Times analysis found that he had said “something untrue” on at least 75 percent of his days in office. “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter…”) But that is not all. His speech exposes us to a view of the world that is so strange, so antithetical to the norms of American political culture, that many Americans find it basically unbelievable. Through Trump’s statements, especially when they concern Russia—whether Trump is calling on Putin to hack Hillary or expressing his admiration for Putin’s gift for power, or promising to cooperate with Russia on securing America against cyber attacks—we get a glimpse of a world run by a fellowship of rich powerful men bound by no principles, beliefs, or understanding of history. This is indeed the world in which both Trump and Putin live.

There is, in other words, an underlying truth to all of Trump’s lies (and occasional non-lies). His statements reveal his understanding of the world.•