Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sued a newspaper for publishing an opinion piece.

Today, Trump's campaign sued the New York Times for publishing an opinion piece titled "The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo." The March 27, 2019 piece by Max Frankel argues that Trump—who famously begged Russia on live TV to hack into his opponents' e-mails—didn't need a "smoking gun" meeting with Putin or a secret backchannel to establish a corrupt bargain. 

Instead, Frankel argues, Trump made clear to the Putin regime up front just by campaigning that he was willing to "play ball" in exchange for illegal interference. Then, Frankel notes, Trump held up his end of the bargain: praising Putin and attacking the U.S. intelligence agencies who opposed Russia's interference, weakening sanctions, and generally doing Russia's bidding on the world stage.

Collusion — or a lack of it — turns out to have been the rhetorical trap that ensnared President Trump’s pursuers. There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions. The Trumpites knew about the quid and held out the prospect of the quo.
...And true to the campaign minuet, despite great resistance in Congress, President Trump has watered down the sanctions and otherwise appeased Russian interests, even at the expense of America’s allies. Call it the art of the deal.

Trump is famous for threatening lawsuits when people say things about him he doesn't like—and just as famous for not following through. In this case, it's just as well: it is not illegal or grounds for a lawsuit for a newspaper to criticize the president.

Worse, for Trump, the truth is an absolute defense against a libel charge. It is true that Trump (to say nothing of most of his senior campaign staff) expressed interest in having Russia intervene during the 2016 election, and it is true that Trump weakened sanctions against the Putin regime and "otherwise appeased Russian interests."

Why should I care about this?

  • In a democracy, people can criticize their leaders without fear of punishment.
  • Courts of law aren't really the best place for a campaign stunt.
  • Presidents who don't want people to think they're the puppet of hostile foreign governments should probably try not to act like they are.