World

When allegations Trump the truth

Accusations of US President-elect's relationship with Russia overshadow his inauguration

It would be comical if not so serious. Or serious if not so tragicomic.

Had an author or screenwriter suggested what American politics has seen last week, it would have been judged unbelievable.

And the Trump presidency has not even begun.

This week might yet be the peak of insanity, the moment at which the competing groups and power centres - media outlets, intelligence agencies, political parties, foreign superpowers - throw everything they can out there before the administration really gets going.

What is equally plausible, however, is that this is only the start.

Even as President Barack Obama was finishing his final speech in Chicago last week, his successor was taking to Twitter in capital letters, forced to respond to the suggestion he had been compromised by Russian intelligence who provided details of alleged sexual acts in Moscow.

ALLEGATIONS

No one knows whether the allegations are true - the reason so many media outlets did not publish them.

Foreign affairs have rarely been Mr Trump's number one priority.

Had an author or screenwriter suggested what American politics has seen last week, it would have been judged unbelievable.

In his first press conference since the election, he was clearly much more keen to focus on his economic and jobs plans as well as the future of the Trump Organization.

Almost all the media questions, however, focused on Russia.

The risk for Mr Trump is that the reality or otherwise of the allegations ceases to be the point: the fact they are so widely known just undermines his credibility.

The justification BuzzFeed used for releasing the admittedly dodgy dossier was the material was already circulating within corridors of power in Washington and beyond.

That is a reasonable argument - but in scattering the allegations, it has almost guaranteed that the story will never go away.

That is important for a couple of reasons. First, it means that questions of Mr Trump and Russia will likely drag on throughout his administration, much as some of the allegations against Mr Bill Clinton, sexual and otherwise, did throughout his presidency.

Already, senior figures in Congress are looking to push ahead with hearings on election hacking and perhaps broader Russian interference in US politics.

Even at the very best, Mr Trump may find himself the butt of jokes and suffering a drip feed of gossip and innuendo.

That was, of course, true before.

But even the barest scan of the Internet and social media suggests the more graphic material in the dossier will linger in the public mind for years.

It is possible this was always Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy - to build Mr Trump up, get him in the White House, but trash his reputation.

Giving him or his spies credit for a plan that devious, however, might well be too generous.

The most damaging allegations, if true, would be those that suggest senior members of the Trump campaign reached out directly to Russian officials during the campaign.

Some claims in the dossier about Trump associates meeting Russian officials already appear to be false.

Even if the entire dossier were true, that itself would not necessarily mean that Mr Trump was somehow "compromised".

Indeed, one could even argue that the fact that these stories are now out there makes it harder for anyone in Moscow to blackmail the US president.

If Mr Trump could win an election despite being recorded saying he could "grab (women) by the *****", he is unlikely to be undone by anything he may have been up to in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

What might be just as dangerous, however, is that he may now feel he has no choice but to take a much tougher line with Mr Putin - and possibly other US adversaries - in a way that might prove equally destabilising, perhaps even catastrophically dangerous.

The irony is that Mr Trump's own rise is so impossible to divorce from many of these trends.

His chief political selling point has always been his lack of political correctness and unpredictability.

The rise of unsourced and sometimes outright "fake news" arguably did much to help him and undermine Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Now, a similar kind of rumour and conjecture could undermine his own presidency in a way that may make him its greatest victim.

The world was already pretty complicated. This will not make handling any of it easier.

The writer is a Reuters global affairs columnist. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington.

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