Post-Press Conference

Donald Trump is who he is.  Despite all the wishful thinking, there is no inner "presidential" Trump about to emerge on January 20.  That's the main lesson to take away from his press-conference exercise in free-association, misrepresentation, diversionary attacks, and calculated indignation.  But here are two further thoughts: 

The news media: Media condemnation's of BuzzFeed's online publication of 35 pages of unverified and in some cases salacious charges have come from every direction.  It is hard to imagine that if Breitbart had possessed such a dossier on Hillary Clinton, it would have waited until after the election to publish it.  But that's the least of the matter. 

We now know that this dossier of unverified charges was floating around Washington for months.  Not only were intelligence agencies looking into them, which was their responsibility, but so were reporters from major news media.  It is in fact a tribute to the mainstream media that, not being able to verify the charges, no one published any of this material.  Neither political nor profit-making motives outweighed professional standards.   Trump himself adverted to this in his opening remarks, although the point was soon lost in his routine anti-media bluster and whining. 

So why now?  That the intelligence agencies took the whole matter seriously was underlined in a detailed BBC report. My guess is that the agencies were extremely and properly reluctant even to appear to be intervening in a presidential election regardless of the fact that issues of national security might be involved -- and this reluctance was magnified by the prevailing view that Trump was the likely loser. 

However, once Trump won, the agencies had several reasons for putting the charges officialy on the table.  First, they knew that their own credibility, on all sides of the political spectrum, might be injured if it became known that they were sitting on such explosive stuff without informing either the outgoing or the incoming president. 

Second, insofar as some of these charges are still being investigated, they wanted enough people to know about them, at least in synopsis form, to forestall any Trump administration attempt to quash the inquiry. (The fact that two or more of the items in the dossier can be pretty easily dismissed doesn't mean that all of them can.) 

Third, if they feared without being able to provide a "smoking gun" that Trump's policy might be, in some way, shaped by being compromised by Russian involvement, they wanted to put him and political leaders on notice that knowing eyes would be watching.  

Finally, if the intelligence agencies do have in hand a "smoking gun," they could hold it in reserve -- but let Trump know.  Counter-blackmail, in effect, against Kremlin blackmail. Very smart, some might say, but terribly reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover's American-style "kompromat" operation at the FBI.  

What to do: Congressional investigation and further work by responsible news sources could lance the boil.  A bipartisan special commission led by intelligence experts linked to both political parties has been proposed.  It would be actually in a President Trump's interests to embrace such initiatives, especially if all the charges are the "crap" he says they are.   

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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