Greg Lance – Watkins
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In foreign-policy circles, people sometimes talk about “boiling the frog”: when an enormously consequential outcome is achieved slowly, through tiny steps rather than one giant leap. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a classic example. The regime gradually improved its nuclear and rocket technology to the point that it is now on the cusp of becoming what the last five American Presidents said they would never allow: a rogue state with the capability of reaching the U.S. mainland with nuclear missiles. No isolated development along the way—despite the country’s steady nuclear tests and missile launches—seemed, by itself, to warrant entering a military confrontation.
Boiling the frog works in politics, too. On Monday, Julia Ioffe reported, in The Atlantic, that WikiLeaks, which the American intelligence community says collaborated with the Russian government to distribute Democratic Party e-mails and try to help elect Donald Trump, regularly sent private messages from its verified Twitter account to Donald Trump, Jr., from September, 2016, until July, 2017. Last October, in the heat of the Presidential campaign, when top Trump campaign officials indignantly denied having any communication with WikiLeaks, such a disclosure would have been politically earth-shattering. But, after a year of incremental Trump-Russia revelations, the press and public’s capacity to be shocked by the details of the Russia scandal may be diminishing.
According to a recent accounting by the Washington Post, “the Trump campaign interacted with Russians at least thirty-one times throughout the campaign” and there were at “at least 19 known meetings.” If the full scope of the Trump-Russia story had been known all at once—Paul Manafort’s work for a pro-Putin party in Ukraine, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner’s back channels to Russian officials, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos’s machinations, Donald Trump, Jr.,’s eager embrace of a Russian lawyer with alleged dirt on Hillary Clinton, the F.B.I.’s investigation, the intelligence community’s warnings—it would have been akin to North Korea going nuclear overnight. The audacity of the Trump campaign’s lies would have been shocking.
It helps to take a step back and remember how politically explosive it would have been, a year ago, to know that the Trump campaign was colluding with WikiLeaks. Consider the timeline we can now piece together. On September 21, 2016, the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Trump, Jr., who quickly notified four top Trump campaign officials (Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and Brad Parscale). The highest levels of the campaign knew that WikiLeaks was in touch with the candidate’s son and close adviser. On October 3, 2016, Trump, Jr., asked WikiLeaks, “What’s behind this Wednesday leak I keep hearing about?”
Four days later, on October 7th, two important events occurred. First, the U.S. intelligence community formally announced that “the Russian Government directed” the theft of e-mails from the Democrats and named WikiLeaks as one of the entities used by the Russians to distribute the stolen material. Second, shortly after the announcement, WikiLeaks began releasing the e-mails stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Trump praised the organization in a speech—“I love WikiLeaks”—on October 10th. He tweeted about WikiLeaks on October 11th. The next day, WikiLeaks, seemingly encouraged by the coördination, sent another private message to Trump, Jr.: “Hey Donald, great to see your dad talking about our publications. Strongly suggest your dad tweet this link if he mentions us.” Fifteen minutes later, Donald Trump tweeted, “Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by Wikileaks. So dishonest! Rigged system!” Two days later, on October 14th, Trump, Jr., tweeted the link that WikiLeaks had provided. The entire political world wanted to know whether the Trump campaign was actively coördinating with WikiLeaks, an organization that Trump’s own C.I.A. director would later call “a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.” On October 14th, Mike Pence was asked, on Fox News, if the Trump campaign was “in cahoots” with WikiLeaks. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
After Pence’s comment, several Trump officials issued their own blanket denials of any contacts with foreign entities during the campaign. As all of these general denials have collapsed, the White House has retreated to making more tailored denials. First, there was no contact at all. When numerous contacts were revealed, the White House shifted to arguing there was no coördination (or “collusion”). Now that clear coördination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign has been uncovered, the new line is that it wasn’t illegal. Trump and his Republican allies are betting that each disclosure, on its own, can seem innocuous or defensible, as the public becomes confused by the complicated timeline and tedious details. The Trump camp’s original broad denials start to be forgotten, and the bar for what is considered truly inappropriate coördination gets higher. It can take a long time before anyone realizes that the frog is dead.
This isn’t the first time that a President and his party have benefitted from a slowly unfolding scandal. In 1998, when it was first reported that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s longtime adviser Dick Morris—the Roger Stone of the Clinton years—conducted a poll to test how the public would react if Clinton immediately came clean. Morris’s conclusion was that, if the public knew everything right away, especially about a cover-up that may have involved perjury and obstruction of justice, the President might have to resign. In the cynical view of Clinton and his political adviser, it was too soon for the American people to digest the full truth. Clinton told his pollster, “Well, we just have to win, then.” The investigation by Kenneth Starr continued and the gradual release of details that leaked from Starr’s office and witnesses in the case prepared the public for a more sympathetic reaction once the full truth was known. Many members of the public eventually turned against Starr and congressional Republicans and rallied to Clinton’s side in the protracted legal and impeachment drama that followed.
The Russia investigation is occurring mostly behind closed doors in Congress and by the special counsel, somewhat muting the impact of revelations that regularly leak out. Will this slow and confusing release of damaging information soften the blow to Trump? It’s too soon to tell, of course, but what he and his team are banking on is that, while a year ago the public might not have tolerated the full truth about his campaign’s links to Russia, the scandal goes down a lot easier when the details are delivered in small bites.
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