Any hope that today’s long-awaited press conference with President-Elect Donald Trump would signal a return to normalcy in the relationship between the incoming administration and the media was dashed last night by the surprising decision by BuzzFeed’s news division to publish an unverified (and, as the website notes, potentially unverifiable) document containing a raft of allegations against the incoming president.
The information, gathered by a foreign intelligence operative who was evidently paid by Trump’s opponents in the Republican presidential primary, contains allegations that the Russian government has for years been seeking to gain influence over the President-elect. The methods included the provision of intelligence, offers of lucrative business deals, and most shocking, the filming of compromising sexual activity.
Some of the details in the document are clearly incorrect, including a false characterization of a Moscow neighborhood, and misspellings. It also claims that Trump attorney Michael Cohen met with Russian intelligence officials in Prague. Cohen, on Tuesday evening, took to Twitter to deny the charge, saying that not only had the meeting never taken place but that he has never been to Prague in his life.
It can’t be stressed enough that the material in the dossier published by BuzzFeed could all be fake. Versions of it have been floating around government and media circles in Washington since last year, and until now, no news organization -- including the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine, which is adamantly opposed to Trump -- had felt comfortable publishing the information it contains.
That changed last night after CNN reported that Trump himself had been briefed on the dossier by top intelligence officials as part of his meeting with them on Friday. The news network did not reveal the explicit details of the allegations, which it said had also been presented to President Obama.
The long-term impact of the publication of the dossier is impossible to assess at this point. The allegations will become the subject of intense media investigation and speculation. It seems probable that US law enforcement and intelligence services are also probing its claims, though Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey declined to comment on the existence of such an inquiry in a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday.
But it’s not hard to predict the impact that the revelation will have on Trump’s already toxic relationship with the media. The incoming president attacked the report on Twitter Monday night, writing “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
On Wednesday morning, he was back at it, citing official Russian denials of a campaign to gain influence over him. “Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.’ Very unfair!” he wrote.
Later, he added, “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
Trump, as of early Wednesday, was still expected to appear at an 11 a.m. press conference, his first since July. Whether or not it will happen, given the circumstances, was in question. Indeed, Trump has previously announced press conferences that either never materialized or wound up being extended campaign events at which no actual questions from the media were taken.
But if Trump does take questions from the press, it seems likely that the vast number of pressing questions about his impending presidency -- his conflicts of interest, his policy agenda, the role of his family members, the inexperience of his cabinet nominees -- will now take a back seat to the allegations raised in the dossier released last night.
That’s a shame because barring substantial corroboration, those allegations will only serve to deepen the impression held by Trump and his strongest supporters that the media is biased against him and untrustworthy. As a result, it will color public perception of future critical reporting about the Trump administration.
Expect to hear the “FAKE NEWS” claim a lot in the weeks to come, whether justified or not.