On Don Jr., the Media Can’t Help Itself

The Trump-Russia conspiracy meme is a farce, not a scandal.

 
 

Donald Trump Jr. speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016.
Donald Trump Jr. speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016. PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

We’ll admit to being gobsmacked by the latest revelation. We always assumed that it would be somebody like Carter Page who’d eventually be discovered to have participated in an ill-advised email chain showing that even Team Trump noticed the Hindenburg-size fact of Russian delight in the Trump phenomenon.

Now the press has its gotcha, and it’s Donald Trump Jr. Golly.

Yet, after the first flush of hysteria, Don Jr. may be only half a rube for not being more sensitive to the Russian connection, which would explode in Hindenburg fashion only with the DNC email hack a few days later.

 
 

Bloomberg News suggests that Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya wasn’t bringing secrets gleaned from Russia’s “crown prosecutor,” but news she read in the Russian press. Not the Russians but a Russian was trying to peddle this info to Trump Tower, as a pretext to lobby on behalf of a wealthy Russian client.

And it wasn’t any Russian but a tubby British music publicist who babbled fourth-hand, or perhaps was apple polishing all on his own, in claiming “Russian government support” for the Trump effort.

The farcical element continues to predominate in Russiagate, including with the mostly ignored Russian influence on FBI chief James Comey’s actions.

But real trouble can flow even from a farce. Thinkers for whom Russia was just one problem in a world full of problems, who previously did not identify Moscow as the No. 1 enemy, now do so, vociferously, for fear of being lumped in with Mr. Trump as a traitor to America or some such.

A mob is a machine for mass-producing cowards and bullies. That’s where we are now. Just turn on cable TV.

Even the estimable Anne Applebaum, author of a book on the Soviet gulag, fulminates in the Washington Post against every recent president for failing to heed Russia’s “peculiar dangers.” With all due respect, U.S. presidents are better informed than anybody about the nature of the Russian regime. They read the intelligence. George W. Bush looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes and didn’t see his soul. He saw a potential nightmare that would have to be managed somehow. Ditto President Obama.

But neither are U.S. presidents equipped with magical powers to make such facts go away. The world is stuck with Mr. Putin, an authoritarian who cannot afford to modernize, whose quest for survival inevitably drives him down a funnel of deepening hostility toward a superpower where the rule of law prevails.

In the U.S. election, what began as Mr. Putin’s vendetta against Hillary morphed into his cynical promotion of Mr. Trump, and now is coming up roses a third time as a way to discredit the U.S. government and its new president.

A respected Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, in the New Yorker, dismisses the idea of some Putin “master plan. . . . There is no plan—it’s chaos.”

Another, Roman Shleinov, apropos of supposed payoffs to Mr. Trump via his real-estate business, explains that it has nothing to do with Trump: “Money is fleeing Russia in all directions, people are trying to invest anywhere they can, to get their assets out.”

If there was a conspiracy to put a Trump in the White House, let’s face it, Don Jr. would never have been fielding a blind email about it in June 2016 from a Miss Universe hanger-on.

Here’s another secret: Most U.S. reporters know they are overplaying the Trump-Russia connection, even as they revel in the Don Jr. gotcha moment, even as they play up the circus of legal and political jeopardy the administration has created for itself.

That is, except for John Harwood of CNBC for whom the Don Jr. revelations on Tuesday explained everything—everything. President Trump’s every word and deed, he argued on-air, must now be understood as payback to Russia for helping him get elected.

Uh huh. One lesson voters may have to stick in their back pocket from all this: The U.S. can’t afford a president with as much baggage as Mr. Trump, even if there’s a lot to be said for opening up the elite to fresh, more-lively blood.

Another lesson concerns the people who used to be called editors and were played in the movies by Jason Robards. If there was ever a need to rein in the supercritical hysteria that the websites of the New York Times and the Washington Post and MSNBC on-air feed when their competitive dander is up, Tuesday showed it.

To their credit, all three have since calmed down. Or maybe it’s post-coital lassitude. (Mr. Harwood is probably virtually comatose from it.) Scoops are overrated—the public is not worse for learning the news at 6:30 p.m. instead of 11:30 a.m., especially if somebody with a brain has had a chance to reflect on its presentation. At least scoops are overrated in every way except in the race for clicks, which we’re guessing played a bigger role in this week’s Don Jr. bacchanal than any news organization would be proud to admit.

Appeared in the July 15, 2017, print edition.

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