The scandal that has yet to find a name sailed into the doldrums early this week. The lack of new news about Russia interference in the election and the financial gymnastics of Trump’s advisers was remarkable after weeks of subpoenas, contentious firings, damaging congressional hearings and various Washington Post and New York Times bombshells. The stall and drift of scandal news had to please the president, even though his failed health care legislation was grabbing most of the headlines.
Then, from out of nowhere, CNN dropped an early Christmas gift on him: A retraction and apology for its anonymously sourced story that alleged that Wall Street figure and Trump transition official Anthony Scaramucci was somehow mobbed up with suspicious Russian investors. The three CNN staffers behind the piece resigned and Scaramucci accepted the apology, but that didn’t keep Trump from parading the network scalps on his lance. He leapt onto Twitter to play offense, slagging CNN as the fakest of all fake news, even inserting an ad-libbed attack on CNN in an energy policy speech. Trump’s wattage brought power to the previously dimmed lights and cameras in the White House briefing room as deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders damned CNN (although not by name) for its alleged transgression, and extended her delightful damnation to the entire established press corps, ripping anonymously sourced stories and “fake news.” Although she hadn’t viewed it, Sanders promoted the latest undercover James O’Keefe video of a CNN producer trash-talking the Russian interference story. In a tweet, Trump strung O’Keefe’s virtual coup on his lance, as well.
It was what a Trump rout looks like—a fevered series of tweets from the president, smug umbrage from his press officer and total domination of the airwaves. As nobody can do quite as well, he used his social media offensive to rob a passel of substantive stories the extended attention they deserved. For instance, how do you like the fact that son-in-law Prince Jared—previously lawyered-up with superlawyer Jamie Gorelick— become overlawyered-up this week, as he added trial lawyer Abbe D. Lowell to his stable? Or that that the prince collected a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank just before the election? Or that former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort belatedly filed foreign agent registration paperwork for the $17.1 million of lobbying he did for Ukraine? Or that the FBI was questioning Kaspersky Labs’ American employees about the Russian intrusions? How about Carter Page’s extended interview with the FBI?
Instead of enjoying his triumph, President Trump made himself the victim of his own media jamming (as he does so many times) by huffing sour wind at MSNBC talkers Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. His gratuitous tweets denigrated Brzezinski for her facelift and Scarborough for allegedly asking Trump’s help in spiking a National Enquirer story. The press screamed about his latest transgression as the tweets reopened campaign wounds that have never really closed. Were the tweets an expression of the Madness of King Donald, as the Morning Joe gaggle seemed to think? Or was the barrage intended to extend his victory over CNN and cripple MSNBC with a preemptive blast? Are we still reading too much into the acts of this impulsive man to think that the offensive was designed to preoccupy the media with something other than CBO scores and the Russia business?
While every new incident of Trump trash-talk affronts reporters, causing them to say that he’s finally gone too far, what the press misses is that his supporters dig it. Trump shares a physical aesthetic with the readers of the National Enquirer, that work of parajournalism that has long covered for him. As Jeffery Toobin explains this week in the New Yorker, Enquirer market research has revealed that its readers crave unflattering stories about celebrities, from pix of unflattering stretch marks snapped at the beach to starlets caught un-made-up. Among Enquirer readers, nothing stimulates like a picture of a celebrity’s botched face-lift, an unseemly paunch on a formerly slim star, a roadmap of wrinkles on an aged celebrity face, or discussion of the loathsome diseases afflicting notable actors and politicians. The only Russia expose you’re likely to read in the Enquirer would be about a tarted up tale about Maria Sharapova and performance enhancing drugs.
As the learned journal Gossip Cop noted this week, the Enquirer has long worked as Trump’s enforcer. It has savaged and resavaged his opponents, including Megyn Kelly, Hillary Clinton, the Obamas and his Republican primary opponents. The idea that he would use a pending Enquirer story to blackmail Scarborough, which press reports appear to support, jibes with Trump’s method. Enquirer Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard, who you can, of course, trust, denies any involvement in a blackmail scheme.
Just when we thought the Russian-collusion angle had disappeared over the horizon forever, the Wall Street Journal single-handedly resurrected it. At the end of the week, the paper’s national security beat ace Shane Harris published two puzzlers about the lost Clinton emails. In a June 29 story and its July 1 sequel, Harris told of GOP operative Peter W. Smith’s quest to salvage the 33,000 “personal” emails Hillary Clinton deleted from her servers before surrendering them to the State Department. Smith, who assembled a tech team to recover the emails, thought of disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn as an associate in the venture. Flynn did not respond to the Journal‘s questions about the claim. In cinematic style, Smith died 10 days after Harris interviewed him.
Smith claimed to have found five hacker groups who boasted possession of the Clinton emails, two of which he thought were Russians connected to the Russian government. (A Smith “recruitment” document lists several top Trump administration aides, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, but Bannon and Conway deny any connection to the Smith project. For a first-person take on the Smith machinations, see this piece from Lawfare.)
The hackers provided Smith with the purported Clinton emails, which he said he failed to authenticate. Unnamed U.S. officials told Harris that intelligence reports “describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.” Unknown is whether Smith was the intended intermediary. Where has Smith’s email trove gone? He told hackers to give them to WikiLeaks, but they’re mum on whether they have them.
As the press and White House enter their Fourth of July recesses, the no-name scandal slides back into the smooth seas doldrums from whence it came, awaiting the next inevitable storm.
I’m still looking for a name for the no-name scandal. Send your submissions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. All scandal names suffixed “gate” will be rejected. If deemed worthy, I’ll use your submission and your name in a future column. This week’s best: “All The Kings Kompromat” (Dick Smart), “Russian to Collusions” (Edward Longhurst), “Matrumpshka Doll” (Tiffany Holliday), “Valley of the Matryoshkas” (Gideon Bradshaw), “The Matryoshka Meddle” (Enderooli), “MARSH-A-LAGO” (Paul Spinks), “Putinesca Sauce,” (Jay Fermaglich), “The Alt-Rot Election” (Stephen Fox), “In Like Flynn” (David Carter), “Red Dawn-ald” (Robert Conder), “Quote the Donald, Nevermore” (James Holmes), “DonTe’s Inferno” (Philip Ireland), “Kremlinal Behavior” (Steven Cohen), “Kremlinfluence” (Angela Baer), “Kremlink” (Stephen Calabria), “All the President’s Même” (Jay Johnson), “Putin’s Puppet Show” (Alon Eisenberg), “Vladimir-a-lago” (Mike Lambert), “Comrade Orange” (Lucinda), “Trumpoline” (Tom Swain), “The Siberian Candidate” (Stephen Fox), “Hunt for Red November” (Tim Purol), and “A Kompromat Position” (Mark Tasker). My email alerts conducted undercover surveillance video of my Twitter feed, which then turned state’s evidence on my RSS feed.