If President Donald Trump has acted as his own worst enemy in the Russia controversy, as everyone says, he’s been baited into it.
Rush Limbaugh a couple of weeks ago said he was laughing over Trump’s “epic troll” of the Democrats by firing FBI Director James Comey (and meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the next day). It was really the other way around. Trump wasn’t the troller; he was the trollee.
An internet troll lobs bombshells to get a rise out of the other side, for his own enjoyment, or to get attention, or to make a point.
Limbaugh isn’t wrong to identify Trump with this species of provocation. In fact, it’s possible to see Trump’s entire campaign in 2016 as one long troll of respectable opinion. It’s no accident that among his most ardent admirers were fellow practitioners like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Trump was a troll long before anyone had coined the term. He’s a natural — fearless, shameless, and a genius at identifying and exploiting the psychological and emotional weaknesses of others.
How did the hunter become the hunted in the Russian controversy? Trump’s critics stumbled on a couple of his own greatest weaknesses — namely, an extreme sensitivity to slights over his status (in this case, as winner of last year’s election) and to negative media coverage.
It’s not as though the Democrats and the media consciously sought to drive Trump over the edge. Their obsession about Russia is genuine enough: in part, a reaction to legitimate questions about the hacking last year; in part, a way to vent shock and outrage over the outcome of the election. But their focus on Russia has, for all intents and purposes, been an inspired act of trolling.
The most successful trolls are those that elicit self-damning reactions. E.g., Bret Stephens writes his inaugural column for The New York Times mildly suggesting that the left has become intolerant of challenges to its climate-change orthodoxies, leading to calls from the left for his immediate dismissal. Case closed.
It’s hard to imagine Trump’s enemies scripting a better reaction from the president to the Russia story than his ham-handed attempts to tamp it down. With a limited understanding of the workings of government and of Washington politics, Trump didn’t realize that an investigation in a highly charged political environment is like quicksand; the more you fight it, the deeper you sink. More press coverage. More witnesses to be called. Yet more investigation.
Trump has flailed his way into the appointment of a special counsel and a press corps whipped up into a near-Watergate-level frenzy. Now, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians or not. If Democrats take the House with anything like a comfortable majority, they may well impeach him based on an obstruction case.
It’s possible that Trump’s campaign actually had nefarious dealings with the Russians, and Trump is trying to cover it up. All this theory lacks at the moment is any real evidence. For now, it looks as though Trump’s handling of the Russia story is his reaction to the inaugural crowd-size controversy last January writ large — a lashing out at a perceived insult that he believes diminishes him and his achievement. Foolish? Yes. Immature? Uh-huh. Criminal? No.
Regardless, there’s no unspooling the damage of the past few weeks. An administration never wants a special counsel investigation. The potential upside of the appointment of Robert Mueller, though, is that it will force a professionalization of the administration’s scandal management, and perhaps — although one doesn’t want to get too carried away — a muzzling of Trump on the controversy.
On the other hand, the calls for impeachment, the even more intense and negative (if that’s possible) media coverage, and Comey’s public testimony may elicit more damaging eruptions by Trump in a spiral downward. It may be that the trolling of him has just begun.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.