Mass Distraction. Mass Diversion. Mass Dissembling. Weapons regularly deployed from Donald Trump’s armoury long before he entered the White House, the launch-timing usually followed an easily-tracked pattern.
Whenever The Donald felt the heat as a businessman, he rolled out the return fire using those familiar tactics. And this week, they have been dramatically, dangerously displayed on two different fronts: the president’s bellicose, mushrooming war of words with North Korea and his inflammatory, racially-charged conflict with many of America’s biggest sporting and showbiz stars.
It might not have been immediately obvious, but Trump’s high-risk ranting and raving approach to both these crises are motivated by those same tactics: distraction, diversion and dissembling.
Why? Because in recent weeks, a combination of devastating hurricanes, North Korean missile and H-bomb tests, shock cross-party deals with the Democrats, et al, have deflected (another D-word) attention from the biggest issue of all dogging the Trump presidency. The Russian Connection.
But while Trump has been courting the Democrats and even basking in some positive coverage from his usual ‘fake news’ media enemies, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation has been steadily gathering pace and moving ever closer to POTUS’s closest allies, family and, potentially, the president himself.
It is almost certainly no coincidence that the president launched his war of words against NFL stars and the North Korean regime just as the Russian Connection began to reassert itself at the top of the news agenda. Trump was also incensed over a television interview former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave in which he said US intelligence community assessments of Russian interference ‘cast doubt on the legitimacy’ of the president’s election victory.
Enter Donald the Dissembler in full diversionary mode. And in terms of re-setting the news focus at home and abroad, igniting a scrap with America’s gridiron stars over their ‘take a knee’ protests was one guaranteed way to do that. Especially when it came with such un-presidential language as branding them ‘sons of bitches’ who are ‘disrespecting our flag and country’, while urging fans to boycott games, team owners to sack the predominantly black protesters and TV advertisers to pull their commercials. Trump also scrapped the traditional White House reception for America’s champion basketball team after its star player announced he wouldn’t attend.
The backlash was predictable. Trump’s invective inspired many more NFL stars to join the protest campaign and they were quickly joined by other top US sports and showbiz stars. Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy called the president an ‘asshole’ while America’s top basketball hero LeBron James labelled him a ‘bum’. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams were among musicians who publicly ‘took to the knee’ to show solidarity.
And if Trump was realistically expecting the NFL owners to obey his ‘You’re Fired’ call, he was quickly disappointed. Despite the fact that several of them had helped fund his presidential campaign, the majority either stayed silent or even stepped forward to defend their players’ First Amendment right of free speech and their right to peaceful protest.
In truth the businessman president never realistically expected them to do otherwise. Bizarrely, however, Trump crowed he was responsible for American football’s falling TV audience ratings figures, although these preceded his intervention.
But in the short-term he’d achieved his prime target, switching attention away from the Russian Connection investigation. The way The Donald had it figured was that playing the patriotic pitch against millionaire sports stars and (falsely) accusing them of insulting the flag and disrespecting the military would at least play well with much of his core support base and dominate those headlines and bulletins.
It was a sign of that diversionary desperation that the president was prepared to risk raising America’s racial tension temperature level considerably with his reckless rhetoric. His subsequent denial that there was anything racial about it only triggered much mockery, considering the ‘take the knee movement’ began as a protest against police brutality and police shootings of unarmed black men and gathered further momentum after Charlottesville and the president’s mitigating comments about the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis responsible.
By the same token, he hijacked the news agenda still further when he followed up his ‘Rocket Man’ jibe against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with another unpresidential response to a threatening UN speech by Kim’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho by tweeting that the pair ‘won’t be around much longer’.
Inevitably, it triggered global speculation on whether The Donald was stepping up his threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea or hinting at a planned assassination operation. In reality, it was neither, but again it achieved its primary target of diverting media coverage from the Russian Connection investigation.
So what are the developments that are spooking the president so much? Principally, Mueller’s apparent confidence that he has enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the president’s former close confidant and onetime presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Manafort hasn’t yet been charged, but Capitol Hill is swirling with rumours that’s only because Mueller and his team may be offering to cut a deal in return for his full co-operation as the investigation continues.
Just days before Trump launched his NFL attack and stepped up the threat level rhetoric against North Korea, the Wall Street Journal and CNN reported that Manafort had been under US government law enforcement agencies’ surveillance even before Trump’s White House bid began. These are said to include wiretapping operations, possibly involving conversations between Manafort and Trump himself, plus the president’s son Donald Trump Jnr and POTUS’s son-in-law and White House aide, Jared Kushner.
Meanwhile the Washington Post revealed that, during the early stages of Trump’s campaign, Manafort offered ‘private campaign briefings’ to a Russian oligarch known to be closely linked to Vladimir Putin himself. This alone could well constitute a criminal offence under US election law and amount to the crucial C-word surrounding the whole Russian Connection issue… collusion.
While, lest we forget, Manafort was forced to resign as Trump’s campaign manager after media revelations that he had received millions of dollars from pro-Russian elements in the Ukraine. In addition, Manafort, along with Jared Kushner, joined Trump Jnr at that now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with a gaggle of Russians allegedly offering ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
That meeting is the subject of just one of 15 different areas where the Mueller investigation is demanding documents from the White House. They include the meeting between Trump and the Russian Ambassador and foreign minister the day after POTUS fired FBI director James Comey, allegedly for ‘putting great pressure’ on him over Russian interference in the election campaign.
It has also emerged that Trump’s former National Security Adviser and confidant, General Mike Flynn – sacked after the media revealed his own undeclared contacts with Russia – has now hired eight lawyers to represent him and launched a public appeal for help pay his legal bills.
Flynn, who has refused to co-operate with Congressional inquiries unless granted an immunity from prosecution deal, is also being targeted for questioning by Mueller.
In another development – overshadowed amid the Korean missile crisis and hurricane dramas earlier this month – Trump Jnr appeared at a closed door session of the Sena Judiciary Committee. This time – in what amounted to his fifth differing version of that Trump Tower meeting with the Russians – he was also playing the patriotic card, insisting he thought it was his ‘duty as an American’ to learn if Hillary Clinton was unfit to be president.
But in a carefully-crafted statement drawn up by his legal team, it was what Trump Jnr left out that is potentially more significant than what he did say. Missing was any repeat of his previous public assertions that his father knew nothing about that meeting taking place. Trump Jnr is also scheduled to face a public grilling on Capitol Hill as well as being questioned by Mueller’s team.
Mueller’s men are also set to quiz every White House staffer who was aboard the presidential plane when POTUS himself drafted a now-discredited statement for his beleaguered son about the murky Trump Tower gathering.
Meanwhile pressure is mounting over revelations in the Washington Post and New York Times that appear to destroy Donald Trump Snr’s oft-repeated public denials of any business deals in Russia.
This information is also in the possession of the Mueller team and is another strand of the expansion of his investigation into the business interests and history of the president, his family and their associates. It centres on a series of emails between Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the president’s longtime associate, Russian-born convicted criminal Felix Sater, known to US law enforcement agencies as a Russian Mafia associate with close links to oligarchs in President Putin’s circle.
The email trail exposes the key fact that Trump was actively pursuing a deal for a massive Trump Tower in Moscow at the very time he was campaigning for the White House. Crucially, it was a deal – in which Sater was middleman – which would have needed Putin’s approval. In one email from Sater to Trump’s lawyer, the convicted crook boasted: ‘Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it’.
It is also significant that the president launched his tirades against NFL stars and upped his rhetorical fire and fury against North Korea knowing that another highly-embarrassing story was about to break: allegations that at least six senior Trump administration figures – Kushner, his wife Ivanka Trump, aides Gary Cohn and Stephen Miller, and former staff members Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus – used private email accounts for official White House business, the very ‘offence’ that Trump repeatedly lambasted Clinton for committing during the presidential campaign. Congress is demanding full details and Mueller will also press for full access to the contents.
Against this backdrop, there is renewed speculation that Mueller’s expanding investigation will in turn trigger a bid by the president to sack the special prosecutor first. That would stress test the informal cross-party ‘agreement’ designed to block that happening.
Among some Capitol Hill figures on both sides there is also growing behind the scenes sympathy with the controversial view of ‘Duty to Warn’, a campaign group of prominent psychiatrists who claim Trump is suffering from a ‘dangerous mental illness’ that makes him unfit to be POTUS.
Breaking the US ‘rule’ on psychiatrists only analysing people they have personally examined, the group argue it’s their ‘ethical responsibility’ to warn the American public.
Their spokesman, former John Hopkins Medical School psychotherapist Dr John Gartner, claims: ‘Worse than just being a liar or a narcissist, in addition he’s paranoid, delusional and grandiose thinking and that makes him very dangerous.’
Whether he is mad, bad or just a cynical, calculating opportunist, his recent war of words with sports stars and with North Korea have inflamed racial tensions in the US and left the world only a miscalculation away from a nuclear war.
That suggests some pretty extreme diversionary tactics at play. But while they may distract from the ever-circling Russian Connection investigation, they haven’t done anything to stop it.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor