Trump and 'The Purloined Letter'
Donald Trump Jr was approached last summer by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, acting on behalf of a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered the Trump campaign ‘very high level and sensitive information’ about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. The response by Donald Jr was not high-minded: ‘If it’s what you say, I love it.’ Apparently the offer of information turned out to be an empty pretext. The instigator of the meeting was a pop musician, Emin Agalarov, the son of a businessman, Aras Agalarov – a name that also came up in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Trump collected by the ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Trump Senior had taken money from Agalarov, and in return provided Miss Universe contestants for use in a music video by Emin. American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties.
How does the mass of circumstantial evidence now add up? Steele’s dossier claimed that leaks from the Democratic National Committee were made with the knowledge and consent of the Trump campaign. In August, Trump’s associate Roger Stone predicted the release by Wikileaks of emails from Clinton’s adviser John Podesta – ‘it will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel’ – and the assurance proved to be justified. More arresting, as one thinks back on it, was the assertion by Trump himself when questioned at a press briefing on 27 July about the troubled security of the DNC. He refused to pull a long face: ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing’ (from Clinton’s private server). He was joking of course. Or was he signalling? That July ‘hope’ could have been a legible instruction to real collaborators, following the plot of Poe’s story ‘The Purloined Letter’. The master thief casually deposits his prize on a surface so conspicuous nobody would look for it there.
The email from Donald Jr may be only the latest candidate for ‘the smoking gun’ or the ‘fire where there’s smoke’ – pet clichés that jostle for priority in the 24/7 news captions – but it leaves no doubt that the morale of the Trump campaign was such as to permit collaboration with Russians against American citizens and institutions. And yet, even if materials on Clinton were received directly and used, it isn’t clear this would have violated the law. Like the contacts with Iran by the Reagan campaign in 1980, or with South Vietnam by associates of Nixon in 1968, the Trump-Russia connection is shocking mostly as an instance of shabby intrigue for political gain. Three Republican presidential campaigns have acted on the belief that winning an election was really worth that much. The non-stop fever pitch of the establishment press would seem less misjudged if Trump were the anomaly they take him to be.
Mainstream media are using their peck of Trump a day to keep ratings high while making it impossible for him to govern: just the thing Fox did for 16 years to Bill Clinton and Obama. The retaliation is symmetrical and warranted, but it does nothing to advance the cause of a political opposition. The Democrats, still looking to retrieve the stolen election but uncertain what opening to pursue, seem almost united in pushing for confrontation with Russia; guided, in this, by the unvaried diet of the media and the mythology of the Cold War – an epoch whose non-mythological terrors few of them experienced as adults. By keeping Trump in the news as both enemy and a source of scandal, they prevent their own fresh talents from ever appearing on the front page. Well advised as they may be about Russia’s intervention and Trump’s depravity, they are looking for a police-detective solution to a political problem.