There Is a Cure for Fake News and Dangerous Leaders
It's the truth ... and we need the patience and rigor to get to it.
Rudyard Kipling must have been a member of the press pool covering the incoming Donald Trump administration. In his enduring poem “If,” he captured the guidelines for covering the new administration with great directness and accuracy:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
Of course, some of these admonitions, like the last two, are easier for some of us to follow than others. But in the midst of the welter of stunning rumors and unsubstantiated accusations and true scandals and profoundly dangerous behaviors that emerge daily from the orbit of the incoming president of the United States, it is vitally important that we all keep our heads, avoid dealing in lies or hating, be patient, and in the end build trust by founding our judgments on experience and facts tempered with humility.
This advice is particularly on point given the tsunami of news in the past several days concerning Trump, his ties to Russia, unsubstantiated intelligence reports that suggest the Russians may have been trying to compromise him, and all the other developments that have simultaneously been taking place regarding Trump, his personal conduct, his choices for high office, their treatment of ethical standards and rules, the policy choices he has indicated he is making, and the behavior of those supporting him in his own party.
So, let’s take a moment to separate what we know from what is unclear and may be unfair. Let’s begin with Trump and Russia.
On Tuesday, CNN reported, citing multiple intelligence community sources, that both President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump received information from the most senior leadership of the intelligence community indicating that, in addition to their collectivite certainty that Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 election campaign with the intention of helping Trump, there are credible reports that the Russians were seeking to compromise Trump through his business and financial ties and as a consequence of his personal behavior. Also within this report was an assertion that members of the Trump team were in contact with representatives of the Russian government during the campaign. We have since learned, thanks to reporting in the Guardian and elsewhere, that the FBI has been investigating the latter allegation and sought permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to track the communications of select individuals affiliated with Trump.
(When asked in congressional hearings Tuesday about this, FBI Director James Comey stated — with a deadpan worthy of Buster Keaton — that he would not comment on ongoing investigations. The irony of this, given the fact that he is tied with Russian President Vladimir Putin for being “Election Meddler of the Year” thanks to his announcement regarding a “reopened” and ultimately fruitless investigation into Hillary Clinton at a sensitive moment in the campaign, was huge enough to make Kipling’s best standards of cool-headed behavior hard to live up to. It also evoked another piece of advice that occurs later in the poem, the point when Kipling hails the merits of being able to “talk with crowds and keep your virtue.” But not in a good way.)
As noted in all the responsible reporting on this development, the information regarding the nature of how Trump was compromised is either unproven, unspecific, or both. Almost simultaneously with the CNN report, BuzzFeed released a supposed Russian dossier on Trump that included both salacious details of compromising personal behavior and more disturbing suggestions of collusion between Trump’s team and the Russians throughout the campaign. The salacious bits were so inflammatory that the typical hothouse atmosphere of social media was turned up to 11. Trump himself offered an all-caps Twitter shout that it was a “WITCH HUNT” and “FAKE NEWS.” And the fact that these pleas of innocence were made in a tweet doesn’t necessarily mean they are not true. (Call that snark, but when a Trump spokesperson asserts, as incoming presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway did this week, that we shouldn’t worry so much about what the president-elect says as what is in his heart, his own team has effectively embraced the idea that he is not, in the course of daily affairs, to be believed.)
The reports about Trump’s misbehavior have been floating around for months. The reason they have not made headlines was that no one could prove them and because some elements of one of the reports on which they were based, from a former British intelligence agent, did not, according to what one reporter for a major newspaper told me, “check out.” That does not make them untrue either, of course. But given the stakes here — the potential for a U.S. constitutional crisis at the beginning of a new presidency and a particularly sensitive moment in world affairs — it is important that everyone in positions of responsibility (as well as average citizens who would like to be thought of as responsible) “keep their heads while all around them are losing theirs.”
Clearly, a thorough investigation is called for. Given the reluctance of the Republican congressional leadership in both houses to take prior expressions of concern regarding Trump’s ties to Russia or Moscow’s efforts to meddle in the election very seriously, and given the FBI’s own dubious recent track record, we can’t be sure we’re going to get that investigation. But experience suggests that it can’t be buried and that it is potentially going to be a major problem for Trump and for the United States in the months ahead.
First, the leadership of the intelligence community thought the allegations against Trump were important enough to include them in the briefings to the president and the president-elect. Such decisions are not taken lightly, especially in briefings delivered by the high-level officials involved. Second, at least some in the intelligence community thought it was sufficiently important that the public know about the allegations that the information was leaked by more than one person to the press. While this is not kosher, it is standard operating procedure. And while Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community may be seen as triggering this, it may not be for the reasons the Trump team would have you believe. This was not necessarily an act of pique from the intelligence community. Rather, I can say with certainty that some within the intelligence community feel that the issues raised are real ones involving U.S. national security that they were no longer confident would be handled appropriately by the potentially compromised incoming administration.
Next, we know that these issues will not go away. Journalists and the intelligence community and serious-minded members of Congress (including the likes of Sen. John McCain, who reportedly flagged some of these issues to the FBI during the campaign) will continue to explore them. We can probably expect more revelations both in the area of Trump’s personal misbehavior (many other rumors have long been circulating) and, more importantly, with regard to the collusion between Trump’s advisors and the Russians. This latter area is the one that is already generating the closest scrutiny. It is also the one to watch most carefully if the old Washington saw that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” is likely to come into play.
But, again, investigations are not conclusions. Given the stakes, we must be very careful not to accept accusations as fact — especially since we know that doing so would actually serve the Russian objectives of undercutting faith in American democracy and leadership as much as would the release of any compromising actual facts.
Those caveats firmly in place, our responsible leaders and members of the press and the intelligence and justice communities must all also recognize that the issues involved here are of enormous consequence. If collusion between the team of the next president and a hostile former power can be proved or if it can be proved that the behavior or business ties of that president may compromise him and put U.S. national interests at risk, serious, independent, nonpolitical investigation is required. We must move past partisanship when the stakes are so high. It is now a matter of national security that Trump’s financial dealings and holdings be made public immediately. Not to do so gives power to those who would further undercut the new administration with rumor — including the Russians.
Trump himself must accept responsibility for having created this problem. Not only did he surround himself with dubious characters with shady connections to Putin and his cronies, but he has taken a stance toward Russia that is mystifying and deeply worrisome. As has been noted elsewhere, it is the one area of policy on which he has remained consistent throughout the campaign — defending Russia, offering Russian talking points, and often denigrating the U.S. intelligence community and its findings in the process. He has taken a stand on Russia unlike any president in U.S. history, defending a government that has violated international borders, undercut democracy, and sought to damage U.S. and allied interests on a consistent basis. Because his view is so extreme, such an outlier, so consistent, so unsupported by the facts, and so dangerous, his ties to Russia and questions about Russian influence over him would have been central even absent these recent revelations. In the wake of them, Trump’s own behavior is the primary reason investigations should be so thorough and public enough to ensure that confidence in America and its leaders is maintained.
Having said all of this, in the interest of cool-headed analysis, it is also worth noting that had none of the Russian allegations existed for even a moment, the behavior of Trump and his team during the transition would be among the most scandalous and disturbing in history. Indeed, Trump in the two months of his transition has already managed to make his administration among the most sleazy, compromised, and unrepresentative of the whole of the American people in modern history … and he hasn’t even taken office yet. That’s not an overstatement. Topping the list are his appointment of known racists (Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions), Islamaphobes (Mike Flynn), and his own family members (Jared Kushner); his failure to divest his business interests and his willingness to let them seep into conversations with major policy consequences (see his exchanges with Shinzo Abe, Rodrigo Duterte, and Tsai Ing-wen); his failure and that of his team to cooperate with the Office of Government Ethics; his repeated decisions to conduct foreign policy prior to even taking office thus undermining a sitting president; his active embrace of counterfactual, junk-science-based policy positions and appointments on areas including the environment and vaccines; the number of outstanding lawsuits pending against him; the nature of some of the substantiated claims pending against him including rape and fraud; his appointment of more advisors who have had spousal abuse charges levied against them than women to his inner circle; his repeated demonstrably significant lies to the American people; his demeaning of the office of the presidency; his decision to continue with other business pursuits like producing a reality television show while remaining president; his deliberate willingness to personally violate ethical norms; his repeated refusal to release his financial records; and his complete about-face on promises that he “would drain the swamp” with his appointments of the super rich, Wall Street insiders, and others with dubious ties — but that by no means exhausts it.
In other words, it is very likely that for the foreseeable future it is going to be very difficult for those in search of the truth to maintain their heads, because so many around them will be losing theirs. This incoming administration produces more self-inflicted controversy every morning than the outgoing one did in some years. The rumors that are flying around will be both plentiful and irresistible to some.
Resist them. Don’t ignore them. But be rigorous in seeking the underlying truth. Some rumors will be unfair, and it is often as important to know both which are lies and who is spreading them as it is to know which contain meaningful facts. Further, given the incredible range of accusations and missteps and scandalously bad policy choices that have already been made by the Trump team, it is important not to give them the cover of claiming all are “fake news” because some stories are in fact unfounded or only partially fleshed out.
This will require tenacity. It will require intellectual rigor and applied fairness. It will often require, as Kipling suggests, to “bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” It will require that “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you” and that “all men count with you, but none too much.”
But it is what this moment demands. And, in the spirit of Kipling’s poem, if we can do those things, then in the end our victory will be in the truth “and everything that’s in it,” and the champions of deception, diversion, intrigue, and fake news will ultimately be undone.
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