Trump and 'The Purloined Letter'

David Bromwich

Donald Trump Jr was approached last summer by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, acting on behalf of a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered the Trump campaign ‘very high level and sensitive information’ about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. The response by Donald Jr was not high-minded: ‘If it’s what you say, I love it.’ Apparently the offer of information turned out to be an empty pretext. The instigator of the meeting was a pop musician, Emin Agalarov, the son of a businessman, Aras Agalarov – a name that also came up in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Trump collected by the ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Trump Senior had taken money from Agalarov, and in return provided Miss Universe contestants for use in a music video by Emin. American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties.

How does the mass of circumstantial evidence now add up? Steele’s dossier claimed that leaks from the Democratic National Committee were made with the knowledge and consent of the Trump campaign. In August, Trump’s associate Roger Stone predicted the release by Wikileaks of emails from Clinton’s adviser John Podesta – ‘it will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel’ – and the assurance proved to be justified. More arresting, as one thinks back on it, was the assertion by Trump himself when questioned at a press briefing on 27 July about the troubled security of the DNC. He refused to pull a long face: ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing’ (from Clinton’s private server). He was joking of course. Or was he signalling? That July ‘hope’ could have been a legible instruction to real collaborators, following the plot of Poe’s story ‘The Purloined Letter’. The master thief casually deposits his prize on a surface so conspicuous nobody would look for it there.

The email from Donald Jr may be only the latest candidate for ‘the smoking gun’ or the ‘fire where there’s smoke’ – pet clichés that jostle for priority in the 24/7 news captions – but it leaves no doubt that the morale of the Trump campaign was such as to permit collaboration with Russians against American citizens and institutions. And yet, even if materials on Clinton were received directly and used, it isn’t clear this would have violated the law. Like the contacts with Iran by the Reagan campaign in 1980, or with South Vietnam by associates of Nixon in 1968, the Trump-Russia connection is shocking mostly as an instance of shabby intrigue for political gain. Three Republican presidential campaigns have acted on the belief that winning an election was really worth that much. The non-stop fever pitch of the establishment press would seem less misjudged if Trump were the anomaly they take him to be.

Mainstream media are using their peck of Trump a day to keep ratings high while making it impossible for him to govern: just the thing Fox did for 16 years to Bill Clinton and Obama. The retaliation is symmetrical and warranted, but it does nothing to advance the cause of a political opposition. The Democrats, still looking to retrieve the stolen election but uncertain what opening to pursue, seem almost united in pushing for confrontation with Russia; guided, in this, by the unvaried diet of the media and the mythology of the Cold War – an epoch whose non-mythological terrors few of them experienced as adults. By keeping Trump in the news as both enemy and a source of scandal, they prevent their own fresh talents from ever appearing on the front page. Well advised as they may be about Russia’s intervention and Trump’s depravity, they are looking for a police-detective solution to a political problem.


  • 14 July 2017 at 2:30pm
    IPFreely says:
    The Democrats are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I began to think that Trump would last 6 months or a year at most. Now I suspect that he will last for 4 years and run again. America! Stop pretending! You get the leaders you deserve.

    • 28 July 2017 at 12:41pm
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ IPFreely
      In that case, they really deserve worse than D. Trump. Although it's hard to imagine what that would be like.

  • 14 July 2017 at 7:27pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    There have been so many criticism from the Left of the opposition in America from intellectuals and political people to Donald Trump. The usual complaint is that resistance and criticism are not enough. Granted. Also always mentioned is the need for the Democratic Party to offer a meaningful platform which is more than resistance and opposition to Trump. Yes, but I suspect this suggestion is nothing more than a Leftist attempt to seize control of the Democratic Party in the interests of a more radical social and economic program. This is believed to be necessary but it seems to me that this is self-defeating. Americans opposed to Trump do not want some form of Bernie Sanders Trotskyism or Elizabeth Warren identity politics. What we want is a middle of the road policy which objects to the criminal venality of the extreme Right and the unpatriotic intentions and unconstituional intentions of the Trumpites. We need someone like Bill Clinton again, not Sanders or Warren or even the divisive Obama. Had it not been for Obama and before him for George W. Bush we would not have Trump in the White House. Here the Left is being its usual suicidal self.

    • 20 July 2017 at 4:09pm
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Norman Ravitch
      "the divisive Obama"? Is it 'cos he is black, by any chance?

    • 25 July 2017 at 5:15pm
      dcuprichard says: @ Norman Ravitch
      Speaking from Philadelphia, very well said and I totally agree. Bromwich as usual is busy grinding his pretty far left axe.

    • 25 July 2017 at 7:26pm
      Blackorpheus7 says: @ dcuprichard
      If you see Bromwich as "pretty far left," you must be one of those unsmart Americans who rant about "flaming liberals."

    • 25 July 2017 at 8:05pm
      bookmarm3 says: @ Neil Foxlee
      I, too, disagree on "the divisive Obama" claim. A man reading Team of Rivals prior to taking office is not planning divisiveness. The trouble with being the first AA president is that you have to be extremely careful. Be too popular, you're a "rock star", be too sure of yourself, you're "cocky", be too smart, you're "the professor", take too many vacations, you're "lazy". He was a threat to every right leaning racist in the country. I think his problem was assuming Congress is there to work for us, not just their own reelection. When the world applauded his election, when a million Germans showed up to see him, when folks here stood for hours waiting in line to hear him speak Republicans saw their worst nightmare come true- another Bill Clinton; a popular well spoken Dem who comes across as one of us, someone who would definitely get a 2nd term. So they spent 8 yrs refusing to work with him - going so far as to vote against THEIR own legislation if he promised to sign it. Talk about obstructionism! This is classic Republican spin - do nothing and blame it on the other guy. Something W did was unpopular (like saving the banks), blame it on Obama. Start a pointless, wasteful (in both blood and treasure)war, blame Obama. Cost of war runs in the trillions(not to mention the fact that ISIS grew from having no exit strategy), blame Obama. Remember, folks, these are the people (Reps) who stood by the the Rove-orchestrated 2000 whisper campaign about John McCain in South Carolina. (phone calls implying that JMcC had an illegitimate AA daughter - she is actually his adopted daughter from Bangladesh). They've been defensive and hate filled so long, I think they've forgotten how to get things done - due, probably, to their creation of the Tea Party which has turned around and bit them in the ...

    • 28 July 2017 at 12:39pm
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ Blackorpheus7
      Yes. There seem to be a lot of US citizens who are very far to the right of Ghenghis Khan.

  • 14 July 2017 at 8:35pm
    Joshua K says:
    Which fresh talents are you alluding to?

    • 15 July 2017 at 5:30pm
      IPFreely says: @ Joshua K
      Bernie Sanders? No, perhaps not.

  • 15 July 2017 at 5:40pm
    IPFreely says:
    Trump is going to hold on for along as he can before Pence becomes the new president. The dilemma of the left and the democrats is that as he holds all of the reins in his hands and so nobody can start to institute proceedings against him. I think we all can guess what that famous meeting in July 16 was really about. Trump needs some cash and also plans to build hotels in Russia so he cosies up to Putin and wanted to promise that he would get the restrictions dropped a.s.a.p.
    Before the G20, the opposition was wondering what Trump and Putin would have to talk about. "Young Turks" speculated that Trump would be briefed with bullet points and little pictures on the things to hit on. What did they talk about for 2 1/2 hours? Golf? The size of the crowd outside?

  • 16 July 2017 at 7:08am
    Delaide says:
    "The retaliation is symmetrical ...". Yeah, I hear what you are saying but it strays in the arena of false equivalence. The attacks on Obama and Clinton (country of birth, Benghazi, emails ...) were nonsense, the attacks on Trump are not fabrications. How can you not be outraged by this misogenist, racist, ignorant buffoon?

    • 17 July 2017 at 12:35pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Delaide
      He is outraged by the buffoon. He just doubts that pursuing confrontation with the other nuclear superpower, while failing to come up with any interesting policies, is the best way to defeat the buffoon.

  • 16 July 2017 at 10:56am
    Graucho says:
    All this aside, it is now very obvious that Putin wanted Trump in the White House and the cosying up is indicating why. Watch this space for Kremlin friendly decisions.

    • 16 July 2017 at 12:37pm
      piffin says: @ Graucho
      So what? The US has Russia completely surrounded with 180 military bases and the trajectory has been inexorably towards WWIII. What we ought to be concerned about are not Kremlin-friendly decisions but the Riyadh and Tel Aviv-friendly ones, which are all pointing towards another unnecessary, apocalyptic war with Iran.

    • 28 July 2017 at 12:38pm
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ piffin
      Spot on, piffin.

  • 16 July 2017 at 11:12am
    Stu Bry says:
    "American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties."

    Why not American oligarchs?

    • 29 July 2017 at 1:34pm
      esp says: @ Stu Bry
      Good point!

  • 16 July 2017 at 7:06pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    The battle between Trump and the media will run and run, because it suits both sides to keep it going. Trump gets to show his supporters that he is the plucky little guy fighting for his freedom of speech against an arrogant and bullying liberal media; journalists get to show their own egos that they are the plucky little guys fighting for freedom of the press against an arrogant and bullying president. And since stopping the fight would force both sides to reveal the fact that they have no constructive ideas about anything, it would be cruel not to let them carry on with it.

    • 28 July 2017 at 12:35pm
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      "So riighttt" (as Trump would say!)

  • 18 July 2017 at 8:00pm
    Bob Beck says:
    I fail to see how the "mainstream media" can, or ever could, make it "impossible for [Trump] to govern". But in any case, Trump couldn't govern a village in upstate New York. And if the Republicans can't govern, with majorities in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and the proverbial useful idiot in the White House, that's on them.

    • 25 July 2017 at 6:04pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Bob Beck
      Mr. Beck's note gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to just how policy is (or should be) formulated and who does it. Superficially the Republicans seem to have an open field in front of them, or a window of opportunity for pushing though a whole host of items that have been on the conservative agenda ever since Reagan. But the party is definitely split between those whose priorities are economic and those who are obsessed with the half-dozen issues that comprise our good old "culture wars". And, more significant than dealing with the slouch and buffoon who is President, they have to figure out how to handle all those normal Americans who have become vociferous Trumpists - he's just a vessel into which they have poured their hopes and resentments, and they are sufficiently large in number to knock off conventional politicians during primary campaigns. In other words the old-line Republican leadership is running scared, and fear jeopardizes their clarity and willingness to arrive at sensible compromises with their conventional opposition (Democrats willing to deal on specific issues). We don't have a Trump problem, we have a Trump voter problem.

    • 29 July 2017 at 3:02pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Made worse, arguably, by the primary system, in which partisan voters punch above their weight, and by gerrymandering. And maybe by the structure of the Senate, which gives disproportionate representation to sparsely-populated states.

      And for all I know, primaries and gerrymandering feed on each other in a vicious cycle, in that the hard-right candidates favoured in Republican primaries then need the hothouse environments of gerrymandered districts to get elected. It would certainly explain some of the... specimens in the House of Representatives.

      I suppose the principle that ordinary voters, not just party members or insiders, should be able to choose candidates, rather than merely choose among candidates, is sound enough. But obviously it's no guarantee against demagoguery.

  • 25 July 2017 at 6:39pm
    yellowrose says:
    I fail to see how Trump is not an anomaly of some kind, at least in terms of the presidency. Of course generally speaking the press shapes the news and doesn't just report it, but come on, they don't need much help here when it comes to Trump. Those who are trying to uncover and report the truth, anyway. And I do believe the Times is trying to do that, however sensational some of their headlines might be. They aren't making this stuff up.

  • 25 July 2017 at 7:59pm
    S. S. Stroh says:
    The author does not seem to understand that the matter is not political but Constitutional. The matter here involves whether the system of checks and balances in the US Constitution are currently functioning as designed. The misunderstanding is largely cultural. For example, two words used here, "morale" and "political," do not mean the same things when spoken or written in American English. This reflects a major difference in our cultures that prompts me to note that fluency in written English is not the same as fluency in American. Still divided by a common language.

    • 27 July 2017 at 7:41am
      drdr says: @ S. S. Stroh
      Could you explain how 'morale' and 'political' differ between British and American English?

    • 1 August 2017 at 2:42pm
      Bob Beck says: @ drdr
      "Morale" definitely clangs oddly in the original post, in any version of English. In a campaign suffering from low morale -- led or mostly made up of people who were dispirited, apathetic, hopeless -- no-one, maybe, would have taken the meeting in question, because why bother?

      No doubt campaign was afflicted with a lack of morality -- it's the Trump clan, after all -- but not necessarily poor morale.

  • 25 July 2017 at 8:12pm
    kooijman says:
    "Well advised as they may be about Russia’s intervention and Trump’s depravity, they are looking for a police-detective solution to a political problem." Indeed. But other than in real thriller-fiction there is little chance of a satisfying denouement, because this "case" is likely to end with a refusal of the Grand Jury to indict, against all reason, just like cases of police brutality usually end with such a refusal. The defect is in the US Constitution with its refusal to adopt the English Cabinet-type of government (which was already well-known and used at the time of the writing of the US Constitution). Instead the Founding Fathers opted for an "attainder" type of removal process of inconvenient government leaders (under a different name, of course) that was so cumbersome that it has never been successfully used. It is far too dangerous for the US to go through the drawn-out impeachment process. Nixon knew it, so he resigned as a true patriot when it became clear that he could not avoid impeachment. I think it is unlikely that Trump will be that patriotic. So we probably will have to bite our teeth for the next three-and-a-half years. And hope the damage will not be irreparable.

  • 25 July 2017 at 9:29pm
    Kulak says:
    Nixon a "true patriot"?? Is that why he used a back channel to the South Vietnamese government in 1968 to persuade them to back out of the peace negotiations and thus keep the war going for years more, all so that he could get an electoral advantage?
    Nixon's love was for power, not for country.
    As for Trump, he is both a liar and a fool. Nixon was not a fool.

  • 26 July 2017 at 12:29pm
    inkhorn says:
    Poe's Dupin stories are famously abrupt in their denouements. Once the detective has solved the mystery, demonstrated his genius to the feckless prefect of police, and extracted every last ounce of awestruck admiration from his Boswellian narrator, the stories wrap up rather quickly, without much thought given to the practical matters of whether and how the now-exposed villain might be brought to justice.

    This blog entry--aside from admonishing Democrats for not being clever enough in their responses--likewise appears rather disinterested in offering positive prescriptions for how the opposition ought to be responding in the author's view. This is disappointing.

    Here is how Dupin characterizes his own motives and aims in exposing Minister D-- at the end of "The Purloined Letter":

    "But I had an object apart from these considerations. You know my political prepossessions. In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned. For eighteen months the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers; since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his political destruction. His downfall, too, will not be more precipitate than awkward."

    Dupin's faith in the logical inevitability of the Minister's self-destruction seems laughably naive in our present-day political context. When was the last time in American politics that the public exposure of wrongdoing actually did result in the deserved comeuppance? Last I checked, our present-day political villains are more likely to be found "laughing all the way to the bank" in the wake of their supposed downfalls.

    So I'm left wondering what lesson, exactly, David Bromwich thinks we ought to learn from Poe's "Purloined Letter"?

  • 26 July 2017 at 9:15pm
    Yeatsgonne says:
    Will it all end not with a treasonable bang but with a tax-evading whimper?
    Isn't that how Capone went down?

    • 30 July 2017 at 6:54pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Yeatsgonne
      That would be nice (and with a whine as well as a whimper, because Donny Dumpster is a major whiner), but not likely. If Trump did something dodgy with his taxes, the first approach would be to ask for payment plus penalties (the way the IRS normally works). He's probably got enough legal talent on his team to avoid an outright "intentional defrauding of the IRS" charge. Even if the latter could be established, it is not clear if the constitutional procedures for impeachment embrace crimes committed before an office holder held the office in question. Trump's real fear of current investigations that touch on his business dealings seem to be twofold: (1) The extent to which his foreign holdings and current revenues from them could be interpreted as violations of the rather vague language of the "emoluments clause" in the constitution, and (2) The extent to which financial disclosures covering many years would undermine his business-acumen reputation and would also show him to be a mere multi-millionaire rather than the billionaire he always boasts of being - this just goes to damaging his credibility and ego, while highlighting his talent for lying.

    • 1 August 2017 at 3:16pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I'd be surprised if Trump gives a toss about the "emoluments clause" -- to him, an emolument is likely a skin moisturizer he once saw his wife apply to her face. But you're right: he probably still believes that others believe in his so-called business acumen. Exposure of his financial entanglements with mobsters and near-mobsters, Russian or otherwise, would likely make him look like just another clueless mark, even if (which I very much doubt) there's nothing technically illegal about them.

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