The first rule of Trump: It’s always about Trump.
Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.
On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.
Obama had two goals in his Chicago speech: to make the case for his legacy, and to reassure the public that democracy would survive. Though he never mentioned Donald Trump by name, the ominous reality that his inauguration is barely a week away hovered over the proceedings.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
As Chuck Todd of NBC News put it on Twitter: “Remarkable moment in country’s history that POTUS feels need to use farewell address to remake case for democracy not just for world, for US.” Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post had a similar take, writing, “That Obama felt compelled to give a speech that functioned as a defense of the basic principles — and enduring strengths — of our democracy speaks to the political climate in which he took the stage for a final time on Tuesday night.”
Not that Obama was entirely successful. The familiar, reassuring words were there, but at times he seemed listless. I suspect that, 100 years from now, people will still be watching his 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention and his 2015 “Amazing Grace” speech after the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. By contrast, Tuesday night’s effort likely will be quickly forgotten.
Observing that Obama’s “message of optimism felt at times lethargic, almost forced,” Jeremy Stahl of Slate wrote: “This speech felt like Obama doing that duty one more time before riding off into the sunset even as his attempts at unifying the country were ultimately stymied at every turn by a political opposition determined to delegitimize his every act as president.”
But remember, it’s always about Trump. By the time Obama took the stage, all hell had been breaking loose for hours. A little after 5 p.m., CNN reported that top intelligence officials had presented classified documents to Trump and Obama that “included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” (The CNN story was a follow-up to a pre-election bombshell by David Corn of Mother Jones.)
Shortly thereafter, BuzzFeed weighed in by publishing the documents, which involved allegations about Trump regarding financial improprieties and a taste for unusual sexual practices. The documents have apparently been circulating among media outlets for some time, but no one had reported on the contents because they couldn’t be verified — as BuzzFeed itself acknowledged.
In a smarmy memo to his newsroom, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith justified his decision by repeating a line in the story — that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” That brought an eviscerating retort from Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple: “Americans can only ‘make up their own minds’ if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe.”
Where do we go from here? Though the most salacious details are almost certainly unprovable, The Guardian published a report by Julian Borger Tuesday night suggesting that this story is a long way from over. According to Borger, the secret documents were given to FBI Director James Comey last month by none other than Sen. John McCain. Of particular note is the tantalizing possibility that all of this is tied up with Trump’s exceedingly soft line on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, a McCain obsession.
As I write this, Trump has not canceled his 11 a.m. news conference, his first in many months. He has been raging on Twitter this morning, charging that our intelligence agencies are out to get him and citing Russia’s statement denying the allegations. It already seems like months ago that he was feuding with Meryl Streep.
Trump scandals have a way of blowing over, partly because the media have a tendency to move on too quickly to the next shiny object, partly because the sheer volume of scandal emanating from the Trump operation overwhelms and jams our normal systems of accountability.
But this could be different. Every iteration of the Russia story is worse than the one before. The questions of the day: What’s next? And will it matter?