We are long past the point where the story of Donald Trump became stranger and more lurid than a Hollywood movie. Tuesday brought a fresh and astonishing twist: the news that the US intelligence agencies have briefed both the president and the president-elect on a series of damaging allegations made against Mr Trump. The document containing the allegations has been published, so they are now common knowledge. Here are five points to bear in mind, when considering this news.
1. The two most damaging allegations are that there was illicit communication between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and that the Russians have compromising material on bizarre sexual behaviour by Mr Trump. These allegations have been circulating among many news organisations (including the Financial Times) for weeks. But, until now, nobody had yet published them because they are unproven.
2. These allegations are being taken seriously. Mr Trump has already dismissed the story as fake news and a political witch-hunt. The fact that no reputable news organisation has been able to corroborate them also damages the credibility of the charges. On the other hand, as an excellent Lawfare blog observes: “The president and president-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility.” But it should also be noted that some of the charges already seem to be falling apart. Mr Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is alleged to have met Russian operatives in Prague, has tweeted that he has never been to Prague in his life.
3. The broader context is important. One reason why these allegations are potentially so damaging is that they fit into a broader narrative. For months, political analysts have been scratching their heads about why Mr Trump is so pro-Russian. More recently, there has been speculation about why the president-elect was so dismissive of allegations of Russian hacking during the election. The most obvious explanation is simply that Mr Trump resents anything that casts doubt on the legitimacy of his election. However, there have also long been theories that Russian intelligence had some damaging Kompromat (compromising material) on Mr Trump.
4. The immediate impact is likely to be limited. Some of Mr Trump’s opponents hope that these stories are so explosive that they could yet prevent Mr Trump becoming president. This is highly unlikely. The inauguration takes place on January 20. Mr Trump has comprehensively denied the allegations. However, the president-elect’s press conference on Wednesday should be quite a spectacle. There is a certain irony to the fact that Mr Trump, who spent many months peddling a false allegation that President Barack Obama was not born in the US, should now be complaining about “fake news”.
5. The long-term impact could be damaging. It is possible that, in the coming days, these allegations will be comprehensively debunked. In that case, they will not hurt Mr Trump. They could even help by casting doubt on all the many other allegations that are certain to be hurled at him during his presidency. However, if Congress and the intelligence agencies insist on digging further into these stories and into the general issue of Russian hacking, the Trump White House will be weakened.
The worst case would be that Mr Trump is dogged by a long-running investigation. It is worth remembering that the Watergate scandal, which originated in events during an election, took two years before it eventually forced President Nixon’s resignation. The sexual allegations against Mr Trump — although vigorously denied — are also damaging to the new president’s dignity. It is not good to take the oath of office against a background of sniggering.