I’m not sure how it is with the BBC and Sky, but here in the United States the news channels prefer to cover a few stories obsessively rather than many stories thoroughly. Things have become even worse since Donald Trump was inaugurated, as that already-myopic keyhole view has narrowed into a monomaniacal focus on Russia. MSNBC and CNN discovered they could boost their ratings by catering to liberals with a 24-hour potboiler about Trump’s alleged collusion with the Kremlin, and proceeded accordingly. An establishment conspiracy industry took hold, detecting Russian fingerprints everywhere, led by your former MP Louise Mensch.
It was into this febrile atmosphere on Monday that Trump’s son-in-law and top confidante Jared Kushner sent his Senate testimony detailing what he knew about the Russians and when he knew it, which is to say, according to him, very little. Kushner—who somehow both operates in the shadows and yet has managed to become brand ‘Jared’—claims he never consulted with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential campaign, as has been reported, and offers phone records to back this up. Kushner says he only briefly attended the now-notorious meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya – whose controversy has engulfed Donald Trump Jr. – and he says he heard nothing related to the presidential campaign.
Jared comes off as a babe in the woods, unfamiliar with politics and swamped by constant overtures from foreign officials whose names he often didn’t know. It’s a plausible account of what happened; it’s also a self-serving one. The statement declines all opportunities to exonerate other members of the Trump administration and is written stringently in the first person. It also leaves deep tire tracks on the back of Donald Trump Jr., whose potentially explosive chitchat with Veselnitskaya Jared dashes away from with Roadrunner-like alacrity. Even on the subject of his disclosure forms, which failed to report dozens of meetings with foreign officials, Kushner implicates an assistant who filed the documents before they were ready.
Such finger pointing to divert the media’s searchlight has become a common manoeuvre in the Trump administration. But we shouldn’t fault the son-in-law; this is a consequence of the climate created by the Trump paterfamilias. While Jared™ was attempting to turf several dozen football fields between himself and everyone else, Trump was snorting that he never would have hired his primordial loyalist Jeff Sessions as attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. The president is reportedly mulling whether to replace his AG. Meanwhile, the press secretary Sean Spicer resigned after Trump hauled an unctuous Kardashian-esque suck-up named Anthony Scaramucci out of the Acela Corridor swamps to be his new communications director over Spicer’s objections.
Steve Bannon, once denounced as a Rasputin-type figure who emerged out of the Breitbartian snows to hold Trump in his ideological thrall, is keeping his head down lest Trump lop it off next. Just two months ago, Axios reported that the president was mulling a massacre of his top staff, with Bannon, Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and counsel Don McGahn all among the potential victims. No doubt Bannon and Spicer recall well the fate of Chris Christie, the portly Trump surrogate reduced now to pathetically raising the smoking age in New Jersey while munching on a pork rind because Trump cast him out. This is a president for whom a year-plus of self-abasing service can still earn you an ostracisation. And so, bereft of common purpose and hunted by the press, it’s cover your back time in the Trump court, with even the dauphin abandoned by the son-in-law.
Cable news has reported that Trump spends a lot of time watching reports about himself on cable news, an infinity mirror of self-regard that may yet tear open a wormhole in the heart of Washington. In the meantime, its main consequence has been to distract the president. Without his leadership, the administration has gone adrift and his lieutenants have prioritised self-preservation. This is being read as a failure of conservatism or nationalism or Albigensianism; it’s actually a short-circuiting of management, an inability to define and enact the change that Trump’s supporters crave. Right now it’s hardly lethal. Trump’s idol Andrew Jackson spent much of his first term raging over a scandal known as the Petticoat Affair. Bill Clinton’s first two years were so chaotic as to seem ruinous. Both went on to have impactful presidencies and Trump may yet.
But returning to staffing matters, there are massacres and then there are Saturday Night Massacres. That latter moniker refers to Richard Nixon’s decision in 1973 to fire investigator Archibald Cox, and now Trump has intimated that something similar could be in the works for special prosecutor Robert Mueller who’s probing allegations of Russian collusion. Forget the thus-far thin evidence; forget the unconstitutionality of the special counsel position. Mueller’s firing—and maybe Mueller’s firing alone—could shock congressional Republicans out of their quiescence and cause nervous administration officials to start to abandon ship. This would be a personnel snafu too far. Trump must resist it and rally his administration. Shutting off CNN would be a good place to start.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor for Rare Politics