The political world has known the power of repetition since Cato the Elder reputedly ended every speech in the Roman Senate with the words: “Delenda est Carthago” or “Carthage must be destroyed.” Stanley Kubrick brought this rhetorical principle to life when he had rebellious Roman gladiators each rise to declare: “I am Spartacus.”
Robert Mueller’s surprise indictment of a baker’s dozen of Russians provides an opportunity for the White House press corps to harness the power of repetition. Every media availability should begin with the same question: “Mr President, if your claim that there was no collusion with Russia is correct, then why do you refuse to condemn Vladimir Putin or enforce sanctions against Russia?”
If Trump responds with a series of nonsense sentences about the Steele dossier or “Crooked Hillary,” then the next reporter should try again in “I am Spartacus” fashion. Whenever cabinet members and Trump mouthpieces appear on television, they should also be pressed to explain why the president is so soft on Putin if he truly has nothing to hide.
Yes, such an orchestrated approach runs against the journalistic traditions of obsessing on the day’s news and leaving crusading to the editorial page or its equivalent.
But there is a strong set of counter-arguments based on the reality that the fractured attention span of reporters undermines the traditional agenda-setting role of the press.
Like a small child being introduced to board games, Trump’s instinct is to knock over the table whenever he is challenged. These daily uproars and Twitter tantrums all but erase memories of the prior week’s outrages. The result: the news media has lost its ability to declare that one topic (Russian interference) is of far more lasting importance than Trump’s assaults on random targets like Oprah Winfrey.
Given the leak-proof nature of the Mueller investigation, there is as yet no way to know whether the special counsel has uncovered convincing evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s puppets. And it remains likely that most Trump insiders and the troll farmers in Moscow never expected the bilious billionaire to actually become president.
But the innocent explanations for Trump’s willful inaction in the face of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election are beginning to seem implausible.
For a long while, I clung to the notion that Trump has a fan-boy crush on Putin, admiring the Russian leader’s bare-chested brazenness, his contempt for democracy and unashamed cronyism.
Another familiar argument is that Trump bristles at any challenge to the legitimacy of his election. That’s why losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton prompted Trump to go off on half-baked conspiracy theories about five million illegal votes and to appoint his ill-fated commission on voter fraud.
When Steve Bannon was riding high, there was talk of his dream of an alliance with Russia against the Muslim world. In such a geopolitical fantasy, the religious links between American evangelicals and Russian Orthodoxy would erase cold war memories as Putin and Trump marched off into the sunset arm-in-arm.
But Bannon has been exiled to Elba. And the president’s unhinged tweets last weekend – excoriating everyone from his national security adviser HR McMaster to the FBI – suggest that there is far more at stake than Trump’s disappointment in his role model in the Kremlin.
Everyone has a private list of what Trump might have to hide. But what matters at the moment is the president’s abdication of any interest in safeguarding the 2018 elections from Moscow’s meddling.
Repeating the same question every time Trump appears in public is a tactic for keeping the Putin puzzle at the center of the national debate. It also reflects the journalistic style of four decades ago when Americans first displayed a hunger for around-the-clock TV news.
Shortly after the Iranian hostages were taken at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, ABC News began broadcasting at 11.30pm a show that soon became Nightline. Each night, Ted Koppel would introduce the broadcast with an onscreen banner that read, for example, “America Held Hostage Day 138.”
Right now, the clock is ticking with “America’s Elections Held Hostage.” And, suspiciously, the president doesn’t seem to give a damn.