After endless pandering to Donald Trump, The Wall Street Journal editorial page seems to have had a moment of epiphany on Friday. Scanning the landscape of collapsing international negotiations, hollow threats, perplexed allies, and bemused and emboldened adversaries, editorial page editor Paul Gigot recognized the Trump record for what it is: “A pile of impulsive, ill-considered threats that are increasing business uncertainty, slowing the economy, and irritating friends the U.S. needs on Iran and Korea.”
This is quite a turnaround for Gigot. As much as any serious opinion leader across the conservative landscape, Paul Gigot has been an enabler of the worst of Donald Trump. Forget sycophants like Fox’s Sean Hannity or InfoWars’ Alex Jones, or even Rush Limbaugh, who are avowedly in the entertainment business; the lesser-known Gigot has long been a serious, respected representative of the Fourth Estate, and among the most influential journalists on the right. As important as those other three might be in keeping the Trump base motivated and engaged, it is Gigot’s migration away from the Journal’s traditional hawkish, free-trade, small government conservatism in favor of Trump’s America First populism that has lent the greatest credence to Trump and Trumpism among erstwhile mainstream Republicans. Gigot may not rip his shirt off and yell and scream like Alex Jones, and he does not have the mass following of Hannity or Rush, but his words have arguably been more consequential — and, as such, his actions more reprehensible — because he and his loyal readers should know better.
The unveiling of Spygate, Donald Trump’s most recent conspiracy theory, provides a case in point. It was just over a week ago that Donald Trump lashed out at the FBI and Department of Justice, accusing “Deep State” conspirators of embedding spies in his presidential campaign. Those spies, Trump now suggests, instigated the acts of collusion with Russian operatives that are now being blamed on Trump and his campaign, and which are the subject of Robert Mueller’s investigation. “If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal,” Trump tweeted, inflaming his followers and starting new tremors across the nation’s capital. “Bigger than Watergate!”
Trump loyalists were quick to grab the baton and run with it. House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes led the charge to force the disclosure of FBI treachery, stating “If they ran a spy ring or an informant ring and they were paying people within the Trump campaign–if any of that is true, that is an absolute red line.” And, as if on cue, Paul Gigot’s team stepped in to lend credence to it all, as Kimberley Strassel — a fixture on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page and a member of Gigot’s editorial board — put the Journal’s imprimatur on the escalating wave of what-ifs in a piece entitled Was Trump’s Campaign Set-up?
What-ifs, of course, are a common Trumpian trope:
What if President Barack Obama was born in Kenya?
What if Susan Rice used her powers as National Security Advisor to conduct domestic surveillance for political purposes?
What if there was a web of corruption between the FBI, the CIA, and the federal judges who participate in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process, to use FISA warrants for political purposes.
Then this week: What if the FBI, DOJ and CIA orchestrated a plot to plant evidence of Russian collusion on members of his campaign, to discredit him. That would be a huge deal! And he is right. It would be. If they did.
Trump has taken us down these ratholes for years. He gave life to the Birther movement, knowing instinctively that it could be used to build a political following. He continues to use his accusations against Barack Obama, Susan Rice, the FBI and the FISA courts to incite his supporters. And just as Strassel jumped in to lend credibility to Trump’s newest conspiracy theory, Gigot and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have taken the bait and given credence to one self-serving Trump conspiracy theory after another, including the Susan Rice unmasking controversy and accusations of FISA court abuse.
Trump’s What ifs? roil the news cycle, keep his base voters enflamed, and distract attention from whatever else might be going on. It matters little that the accusations and outright lies come to nothing, because the accusations serve their purpose in the moment, and the legacy of distrust and suspicion that they engender endure. That, of course, is the point. Trump has already gotten what he wanted out of Spygate: Rod Rosenstein gave credence to the charges by agreeing to an investigation, which was followed up by the much-ballyhooed meeting in the White House where the purported Spygate evidence was disclosed. But, most important, according to recent polling, 61% of Republicans have embraced Strassel’s hypothesis and believe that Trump was framed by the FBI and the Department of Justice. And Trump knows well that once planted, these beliefs can live on, despite whatever evidence might be presented to disprove them. After all, according to a Economist/YouGov poll this past December, a majority of Republicans continue to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, so it is an easy bet that by the time Robert Mueller publishes his report, a fair share of Republicans will be set in their belief — regardless of evidence Mueller’s team might present — that Donald Trump was framed.
What is it that has kept Gigot and Strassel from realizing that Marco Rubio was right when he warned that Donald Trump was a con man, and that Ted Cruz was not exaggerating when he judged Trump to be a pathological liar and irredeemable narcissist — despite plentiful and unending evidence of both. Does Kim Strassel not understand that her validation of Trump’s conspiracy theories gives license to millions of Republicans who should know better than to embrace his most outrageous and destructive lies?
It is hard to know what led to Gigot’s change of heart this week, when he tacitly acknowledged the vacuousness of Trump’s presidency. There is nothing new to Trump’s impulsive, ill-considered threats; indeed those are what have defined him from the beginning. Was it Trump walking back his tariff threats against China, while continuing to threaten our allies? Or was it watching Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping stepping into the void created by America’s disengagement from its position of world leadership, as evidenced most recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, each making the pilgrimage to Russia to kiss the ring, and discuss the path forward on Iran, as well as regional and energy security on the continent.
Or perhaps it was Gigot’s realization, as Trump clamored to address Xi’s demand that the U.S. ease restrictions that have crippled ZTE Corporation — the giant Chinese company that had been sanctioned for stealing intellectual property and selling restricted technology to our adversaries — that leaders across the globe have figured Trump out, and instead of Trump playing them, they are playing him. Or perhaps he just succumbed to the narcissism and venality of it all: Over the past two weeks, we learned about both the $500 million that China invested in Trump’s new Indonesia project — announced just two weeks ago, but largely buried beneath all the rest of the news in TrumpWorld — and the $107,000 Trump pocketed last year leveraging his new reach as President to sell deodorant and bath robes.
When the dust settles, and it turns out that it was the FBI that was doing its job and it was Donald Trump who was violating the trust of the nation, Paul Gigot will have to look in the mirror and ask himself how he let himself get in so deep, and became an enabler of a man whose every action and tweet serves a single interest: his own. Gigot has been complicit — as the Wall Street Journal was last week in endorsing Trump’s spygate gambit — in Trump’s continuing destruction of institutions and comity that are essential to the nation’s future. Perhaps Gigot’s editorial on Friday suggests he has woken up. One can only hope; he has a lot to answer for.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.