The global infowars have tumbled through the looking glass: On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the government of President Donald Trump—who grew fat accusing the American press of promulgating fake news—of concocting fake news directed at him. According to Putin, the United States’ claim that Syria used chemical weapons against his own people was “a false flag” operation and that the Trump administration was hatching a second round of fake chemwar news to justify a second retaliatory missile strike.
Putin’s declaration invites of vision of the first Putin-Trump summit degenerating into a skit-like faceoff with Putin charging that Trump is spewing fake news and Trump reciprocating with his own claim that Putin’s fake news assertion is fake news.
“This is fake news!”
“Nyet, you are fake news!”
“No, my friend—and I do admire your strength at standing up to me, the leader of the strongest nation in the world—your claim that my fake news accusation is fake news is fake news.”
And so on. The succulent truth of the chemical attack is that Putin’s lying mouth has forced Trump to endorse the findings and accuracy of his own intelligence establishment—the same intelligence establishment he has repeatedly vilified on Twitter and compared to Nazis. The White House has declassified a devastating summary of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and uses and called Russian denials a “cover-up.” The summary goes even farther than the chemwar bombing to state that the denial is standard operating procedure for the Putin regime. “Moscow’s response to the April 4 attack follows a familiar pattern of its responses to other egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community,” the statement says.
The need to prove that his missile strike was legitimate has essentially placed Trump “all in” with the intelligence crowd. Now committed to the intelligence community’s account of the Syria attack, Trump won’t be able to easily contradict future official findings by the spooks. Those future official findings may well include nasty news about his presidential campaign, which is under investigation for its alleged contacts with Russian figures. Baby Donald would have to explore new frontiers in mendacity to say that the intelligence squad was good enough to provide the basis for firing off 59 Tomahawks and risking a diplomatic crisis with Moscow but wasn’t sharp enough to ace the Russia investigation.
Not that Trump isn’t capable of slithering his way out of an unflattering or criminal finding of his campaign’s conduct. As he proved during the campaign, he will go to any length to avoid horrid truths about his views and his conduct. The master of diversion, he maintains a stockpile of news glitter he can dispense at a moment’s notice to reroute the national debate into one of his vile culs de sac. Alas, his fidelity to the truth—the chemwar finding—is consistent with the rest of his persona: It’s situational. He can standing broad-jump his way out of any corner you paint him into.
Trump might escape capture, but will he get off scot free? His relentless chanting of “fake news” in recent months, his disparagement of the press and his campaign against truth has had the unintended effect of turning his most loyal follows into doubters of any news that some authority tags as fake. When Putin, the leading press baron of disinformation, calls the chemwar attacks fake news or uses his powers of pre-cognition to declare that the United States is planning to plant fake news so it can bomb again, he’s drawing on his country’s long tradition of peddling lies and calling truth-tellers liars.
But Putin is also working from the Donald Trump playbook that says there’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing what you want to designate as “true” as long as it justifies your immediate needs and future desires. “Putin goes out and lies in your face in order to say, ‘Facts don’t exist, which means you can’t argue with me,’” says Russian journalist Peter Pomerantsev. Trump’s big mouth didn’t create Putin. But he has moistened and enriched the compost in which the Russian leader grows his poison vines. Fake news makes for strange bedfellows.
Thanks to the Fort Worth Sports Literacy Association for helping me turn the corner on this one. Styling by Blake. Send fake news to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts wage chemwar on my Twitter feed. My RSS feed sells munitions to both sides.