I don’t think it’s possible to fully grasp the Ukraine scandal without understanding the dynamic outlined by former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert last weekend. Recall that he told ABC News and the New York Times that a pernicious cycle had taken hold in the White House — even as aides debunked 2016 conspiracy theories, Trump allies (including Rudy Giuliani) would sell the president once again on wild tales. Here’s the Times report on Bossert:
“It is completely debunked,” Mr. Bossert said of the Ukraine theory on ABC. Speaking with George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Bossert blamed Mr. Giuliani for filling the president’s head with misinformation. “I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”
Other former aides said separately on Sunday that the president had a particular weakness for conspiracy theories involving Ukraine, which in the past three years has become the focus of far-right media outlets and political figures. Mr. Trump was more willing to listen to outside advisers like Mr. Giuliani than his own national security team.
I’ve heard many of these conspiracy theories, and — like many conspiracies — they can use a base of troubling truth as a launching pad for the most bizarre of claims. For example, the origin of the Steele Dossier is troubling and worth investigating. The Carter Page FISA applications should also be closely examined. It is not at all uncommon (sadly) for to find examples of overreach or abuse in any far-flung and complex investigation — that’s one reason why defense lawyers often spend so much time on suppression motions before trials. But the theories floating around online Trumpworld go far, far beyond any discernible connection to logic or evidence.
But here’s the problem — the wildest theories are floated in the quarters that are most fiercely devoted to the president. They’re the ones who constantly to refer to the “real collusion” as the connection between Democrats and the Ukrainian government. They’re the ones who cast doubt on the very idea that Russia interfered in the election at all, much less on Trump’s behalf. They’re the ones constantly using absurd words like “coup” to describe constitutional and legal processes that are adverse to Trump. And, based on the transcript of the call with Volodymyr Zelensky, it seems as if Trump is drinking deeply of their conspiratorial Kool-Aid.
In their click-bait zeal to curry favor with the world’s most powerful man, they are feeding Trump’s worst instincts, and now we know that he’s warped American diplomacy in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods as a result.
In an interview earlier today, I described the scandal as one part corruption, one part fitness. Yes, it’s venal and corrupt to depart from any conventional legal process to urge a dependent foreign government (or a hostile foreign government, like China) to investigate a domestic political rival — especially in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories and conduct diplomacy accordingly also speaks less to Trump’s corruption than whether he has the character, knowledge, and temperament to be president. In fact, I’m starting to believe that the fitness aspect of this controversy may well be dominant.
Trump’s most extreme allies have built a large media following, but the most important person in that audience is the current occupant of the Oval Office. They’ve succeeded in convincing the most powerful man in the world that their theories are right. They’re influencing diplomacy at the highest levels. But they just might be planting the seeds of Trump’s political destruction. They’ve helped put their beloved president on the path to impeachment.