Hurricane Harvey may blow roof off the White House
US editor PAUL CONNEW on what the Weinstein revelations could mean for Donald Trump's beleaguered administration
One voice has been deafeningly silent in the global war of words surrounding disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Step forward, Donald Trump.
It's a topic on which the normally hyper-active presidential Twitter fingers have been curiously paralysed.
The legitimate opportunity to lambast those normal prime targets of his animus, the Obamas and the Clintons, over their close links to Weinstein and his history of funding Democrat party election campaigns, has been bypassed.
So, what is going on? One obvious answer falls into the 'people in glass houses' category. Although none have ever reached a courtroom, at least 11 women have accused Trump himself of sexual harassment over the years, and that infamous 'Pussygate' tape exposed him as a man boasting that power and celebrity entitled him to grope women on a whim.
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For once, this most narcissistic and opportunistic of presidents has bowed to wiser heads counselling caution. For once, and this is highly significant, White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly and First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her presidential aide husband Jared Kushner are singing from the same hymn sheet as Steve Bannon, the Alt Right strategy chief the trio conspired to kick out of the West Wing.
Their combined advice to a vulnerable POTUS adds up to: 'Stay above the fray… or risk becoming a hostage to misfortune and your own history of misogyny.'
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But Bannon, back in favour with Trump and regularly sought out for advice via calls from the president's private phone, devised a 'proxy war' strategy and convinced the president that the Weinstein scandal not only represented a massive headache for the Democrats, but also a timely new weapon in their mutual war against America's mainstream media.
It was no coincidence that Trump timed a controversial Tweet suggesting the federal government 'challenge' the broadcast licences of networks that report what he deems 'fake news' as the Weinstein scandal mushroomed across the media landscape like highly toxic nuclear fallout.
In another outburst the president told reporters covering an Oval Office meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 'It's disgusting the press can write whatever it wants to write. People should look at it'.
You'll note that these attacks and threats against both broadcast and print media made no direct reference to the Weinstein scandal, much as it must have grated for a president normally obsessed with seizing every and any opportunity to attack Democrats and the Hollywood hierarchy. But this time he was falling into line with the Bannon 'master plan'. Bannon is convinced the power nexus between politics and the entertainment industry, much closer in the case of the Democrats, works against them and in favour of Trump when a scandal like Weinstein – who has 'unequivocally denied' any allegations of non-consensual relationships – erupts. It also, he believes, relegates Trump's own misogynistic history to the back burner.
While POTUS curbed his tongue and stilled his Twitter feed on the subject, Bannon's Breitbart News went into full attack dog mode, focusing not just on the sexual bullying allegations but Weinstein's role as a major Democrat fundraiser. It also targeted America's MSM, accusing them – with a degree of justification – of downplaying the story now and having acquiesced in covering up Weinstein's activities for decades, while showing no such restraint in focusing on Trump's alleged indiscretions.
Bannon wasn't giving interviews himself or writing under his byline but that didn't stop US media critics flagging up his own past business links with Weinstein in Hollywood a decade or so ago. In one gushing interview, the man who went on to mastermind Trump's presidential victory, bragged: 'We are extremely honoured to be in business with the new Weinstein Company. Bob (Harvey's brother) and Harvey are two of the most prolific studio heads in the history of Hollywood.'
But that was then and now is now, and Breitbart News weren't about to allow such niceties as history or hypocrisy get in the way of its agenda. And as it did so, Trump's eldest son, Donald Jnr – who has been lying low since being caught at the epicentre of the Russian Connection investigation into his father's election campaign – broke cover as another proxy voice in the Weinstein storm by tweeting a challenge to America's influential late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel to focus on the issue.
Kimmel duly obliged, but not quite in the manner Trump Jnr would have wanted. Referring on-air to the challenge, Kimmel said: 'People are pointing to the fact that Harvey Weinstein was a Clinton supporter. I'm not defending Hillary Clinton. The fact is, her campaign did take money from what turned out to be a high-profile man who's been accused of sexual harassment, multiple times. And not just one of them, by the way. She took money from two of them: Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, who donated to Hillary's campaign in 2008.
'So, anyway, note to Donald Trump Jnr, next time you're defending your father and you think it's a good idea to draw a comparison between him and a freshly-accused sexual predator? Don't. It doesn't help. It really doesn't.'
To add to the Ouch Factor putdown, Kimmel also flagged up that the Weinstein scandal story coincided with the one-year anniversary of that leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Trump Snr was caught making his own lewd boasts about sexually assaulting women. 'So I thought we should celebrate,' taunted Kimmel.
Meanwhile Trump Jnr, still seemingly oblivious to the obvious hypocrisy charge, weighed in again on Twitter, this time to 'shame' Oscar-winning director and regular Weinstein collaborator Woody Allen for saying he felt 'sad' about the 'messed up' mogul.
'OMG….he feels 'sad' for Harvey? Are you fricken (sic) kidding me #hollywood' ran one Trump Jnr tweet. Another said: 'How long till we find out that he's in hiding and not coming back a la Polanski???'.
Given Allen's own history and his support for Roman Polanski, these weren't uncommon sentiments across the Twitterati, but in turn they also triggered plenty of social media activity mocking Trump Jnr's credibility as a critic.
In another twist, lawyers representing Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant who is among the 11 women to have accused Trump Snr of sexual assault or harassment, confirmed they have subpoenaed his presidential campaign 'for all documents relating to her, all communications with or about her and all documents concerning any woman who has asserted Donald J Trump touched her inappropriately'.
The claims were dismissed as 'total fiction' by Trump during the election campaign and the president's lawyers have now repeated those denials and suggested the case was 'fame-seeking' and 'politically-motivated'.
But once again, on the advice of his lawyers and advisers, Trump resisted the temptation to react personally this time. They are bracing themselves for the possibility of the Weinstein fallout flushing out more women making historical sexual misconduct claims against Donald Trump himself.
Another factor in Trump's silence over the Weinstein scandal, according to some on Capitol Hill and Wall Street, is that billionaire Tom Barrack, the president's longtime friend and donor, is looking to takeover the moguls's stricken movie company via his giant Colony Capital investment house.
Also a consideration for those keeping the president uncharacteristically mute on the Weinstein front was the knowledge that any presidential outburst would be guaranteed to spark renewed focus on his own links to the late Roger Ailes, the former Fox News head honcho fired by Rupert Murdoch amid a welter of sexual abuse allegations and multi-million dollar out-of-court settlements with his victims. Despite that scandal, Trump rubbished the victims' allegations, remained loyal to his friend Ailes and even imported him as a behind-the-scenes adviser during his run for the White House.
In fact, the latest development in the case being brought by Zervos centres on the accusation that Trump's aggressive campaign trail denials, heavily featured on Fox News in particular, amount to 'defamation'.
To which, the president's lawyers have responded by arguing that the statements during the campaign should be understood as 'part of the expected fiery rhetoric, hyperbole and opinion that is squarely protected by the First Amendment'.
Lawyers for the president have until the end of this month to file an application for Zervos's case to be dismissed. But they've also hinted that if that fails, they will apply for any trial to be postponed until after he leaves office. But the citing of the First Amendment with its constitutional protection of the right of free speech and the freedom of the press by Trump's legal team certainly sparked guffaws among his critics. Not least because it came only days after his latest perceived threat to media freedom with that talk of revoking broadcast licences and accusing newspapers of 'writing whatever fake news they like'.
Offering some crumb of comfort in another bewildering week in the US – the First Amendment and the granting of broadcast licences are almost certainly steeped in sufficient legal and political protections to defy even a president with Trump's dictatorial instincts.
Paul Connew is US editor of The New European
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