That Moscow Hotel Room

I’m going out on a limb here, but then that’s where I’m usually most comfortable.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I thought we were at the end of the beginning of the Trump regime. With former FBI Director James Comey’s riveting statement and testimony to the Senate committee Thursday, I now think we’ve moved ahead into the beginning of the end. Which doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way still to go.

I want to focus on one aspect of Comey’s statement, because it reminded me of an important clue to Trump’s consistently stunning capacity for self-destructive behavior. It’s certainly not his only motivation. Greed, lying, insecurity, the thrill of power, the thrill of cruelty, ignorance, arrogance, mental illness—many such elements seem to drive him. Yet there is another factor, possibly the most forgotten yet most crucial, which may be the engine of his self-destructiveness.

That would be related to the existence of “salacious and unverified material” about which Comey had to inform Trump during the transition. He had had to do so because the press was about to report it, and because “if there was some effort to compromise an incoming president we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.” And he had to do so one-on-one alone, “to minimize potential embarrassment.”

We the public soon learned that this material, originally commissioned as political opposition research by Trump’s GOP primary rivals, had been compiled as a dossier by Christopher Steele, a retired senior operative with M-16, the British intelligence service; Steele now owns his own private intelligence firm but remains highly respected in both British and American intelligence circles. Steele became so concerned with what he was uncovering that he continued work without pay, even after Trump won the nomination. The lengthy, complex route his dossier traveled involved gaining the attention and aid of the former British Ambassador to Russia, and of Senator John McCain, who brought it to the FBI. Steele even alerted the UK intelligence services when he thought the FBI was not acting on the findings, because he felt the information constituted a severe threat to both UK and US national security.

The details can be found online, as the story was covered widely by British newspapers, including The Guardian–and the dossier made its way into the US media (expurgated). Finally, BuzzFeed News published the dossier in full.

The findings—which contain revelations about Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn—also include reports that Putin’s FSB intelligence services planned “to compromise Trump and develop him as a tool” via either sweeteners of real estate deals and funds or through exploiting his personal obsessions and sexually perverted conduct in Moscow. This conduct reportedly included hiring a number of prostituted women to perform a urination spectacle for him in a Ritz Carleton Hotel room under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras. The dossier adds that the local service industry source in St. Petersburg reported that Trump acted similarly in that city, “but all direct witnesses recently have been silenced—bribed or caused to disappear.” Hence, unverified.

The “golden showers” story trended online for a moment and became the subject of comedian’s jokes. Then it disappeared. Steele vanished—underground, it was rumored, in fear for his life—but then reappeared. There was brief talk of his testifying before the Senate committee or being deposed in London. Then that died down. The Guardian reported in April that Steele’s London-based firm is being sued for defamation by Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian venture capitalist named in the dossier, and the firm is vigorously defending itself in court. Meanwhile, in multiple investigations, no one mentions whether any effort has been or is being made to verify the material. Why? Especially since the rest of the dossier has proved accurate? Is this information permanently unverifiable? Can it be that no one other than Putin and his FSB knows anything substantive about it?

Comey’s scrupulous testimony reveals that Trump obsessively returned to this subject over and over again in meetings with Comey, raising the subject by himself, and stating and restating that he had never ever been involved with “hookers in Russia.” In fact, Comey’s testimony points to Trump’s three refrains in all these meetings: “strongly defensive” in his denials of the hotel-room story, questions as to whether he himself was under investigation, and concern about Mike Flynn. Not concern about other staff, or Russian hacking, or election interference. Only Mike Flynn. This was “the cloud” hanging over Trump, as he expressed it to Comey—and later expressed it to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister in the Oval Office when they all laughed that “the cloud” had now been lifted, since Comey had been fired.

We don’t know if Flynn originally was the loyal soldier falling on his sword to stay silent and protect his leader, but we do know he later tried to get immunity by claiming he had “quite a story to tell.” Is the Moscow hotel scene that story? Is Michael Flynn the sole outside-of-Russia connecting link to its verification? Is his the story that most panics Trump?

In this labyrinth, everyone’s chasing the money, a la Watergate—and that’s fine. But Trump has no shame about enriching himself, his family, and his properties by the presidency. He doesn’t think his financial crimes are wrong. He smirked on TV that not paying taxes made him “smart.” And his base agreed. But this information—still nestled in the clutches of the FSB, and perhaps in Michael Flynn’s memory—this is different. And Trump knows his base will think it’s different, too. Oh, none of them will care about his buying women, mind you. But his having been sexually satisfied by women urinating in front of or on him—from that he could never recover.

Trump’s rebuttal to the story has been twofold. First, since he’s a self confessed germaphobe, it couldn’t possibly be true! Except that germaphobes are in fact fixated on their concept of being “dirtied.” Second, he’s claimed, “I always say hotel rooms are bugged so I’m very very careful.”

Seriously. When have we ever seen this man being careful?

We have seen his impulsiveness, his carelessness, his self-indulgence. We have seen his pattern of inverting reality by claiming he’s always done what he’s never done, and his pattern of accusing political rivals of doing what he does himself. In his world, where the sadist and masochist are the same, there’s no win-win, only win-lose. His greatest dread is being laughed at. Obama provoked laughter about him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and he never forgave that. His standard speech refrain is “Other countries are laughing at us.” We know his megalomania masks self-contempt.

His father, Fred Trump, an authoritarian consumed with succeeding in the basest terms, established a shame/ humiliation culture in their home. The oldest son, Fred Junior, killed himself through alcoholism. In a shockingly revealing statement to The New York Times about that brother, Donald said, “Everybody loved him. He’s like the opposite of me.”

So Fred Senior might grasp and possess, and Fred Junior could drink and die, but what was left for Don—except to swagger? He could fail. He could fail, and fail, and fail again, in serial self-defeating acts—business deal after lawsuit after bankruptcy after casino disasters after “university” scams after steaks and water brands after marriages after parenting after seizing the presidency by nefarious means, he could fail and fail again. He could finally even fail at defining all his failures as success.

For Donald, perhaps failing is the ultimate defiance against his father. For him, perhaps failure is the secret synonym for freedom.

It’s only a few steps from there to that Moscow hotel room.

But then! To find he’s in the White House by freakish circumstances, never having expected to win! What terror must haunt him! What wouldn’t he do, what won’t he betray—to Putin or anyone—to keep his secret safe from the world’s laughter at his shame?

And the story has been effectively buried. It may be the one scenario no man—Republican or Democrat, in the intelligence community or in Congress—would ever want to raise about another man. (It could also be because some men would shrug, “So what’s the big deal?”) And it’s also the one scenario no woman would want to raise, from a sense of delicacy or disgust, or because to suggest this—that the discovery of such a scenario is in fact Trump’s deepest fear and the core of what drives him to convulse our country—is to risk seeming like, well, a crazy feminist. Yet it feels as if this key fits, turns, and clicks; as if this may well be the reason Putin can still hold our Republic hostage, and will continue to do so until Trump falls from power.

If Trump can be brought down by charges of obstructing justice, or by financial crimes, both of which he also committed, that’ll do. But I for one would definitely like to hear more from Christopher Steele and his sources. Special Counsel Mueller: follow the money, sure. But please, cherchez les femmes.