Whatever you think of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, he has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.
“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said in his hotly anticipated interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
Comey was referring, of course, to a claim in the dossier about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia compiled by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, Trump reserved the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where Barack and Michelle Obama had stayed previously. Citing multiple anonymous sources, Steele reported that Trump had prostitutes defile the bed where the Obamas slept by urinating on it, and that the Kremlin had recordings.
Since BuzzFeed News published the dossier last year, the right has treated this allegation as so outrageous as to be almost prima facie false, like a report that Trump had been abducted by aliens or plotting with the Illuminati. Revelations in Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” complicate any easy dismissal.
I doubt Comey wants these salacious details to be the main message of his earnest tome, in which he comes off as a somewhat tragic figure who, in striving for decency, makes errors of judgment that helped put the singularly indecent Trump in the White House. Yet the book’s most significant new information is about Trump’s obsession with the rumored tape, which he brought up with Comey again and again, and the lies Trump told about why it couldn’t be real.
In one conversation, Trump insisted to Comey that it was unimaginable that he would sleep with prostitutes. (The former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claims to have had an affair with Trump, has said that he tried to pay her the first time they had sex.) In another, he said he’d just remembered that he never even stayed overnight in Moscow: “He claimed he had flown from New York, had only gone to the hotel to change his clothes, and had flown home that same night,” Comey writes.
Though Comey doesn’t mention it, this contradicts the story that Trump’s former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, reportedly told the House Intelligence Committee about that night. Schiller said that a Russian associate offered to send five women to Trump’s room, but was turned down. “Schiller said the two men laughed about it as Trump went to bed alone,” NBC reported. “Schiller testified that he stood outside Trump’s hotel room for a time and then went to bed.”
Trump’s lies here are of more than voyeuristic interest. The possible existence of the tape isn’t relevant because it would prove that Trump is sexually debauched and longs to desecrate everything Obama touched; we already know that. It matters because, like the former director of the F.B.I., we don’t know if Trump has been compromised by Russia.
Evidence that the tape might be real isn’t limited to Trump’s phony alibi. In their book “Russian Roulette,” the investigative journalists David Corn and Michael Isikoff report that five months before the pageant, Trump and his entourage, including his Russian associate Emin Agalarov, visited a louche Las Vegas nightclub called the Act. It was later shut down after a judge issued an injunction against the “lewd” and “offensive” performances it was known for.
Among its regular performances, Corn and Isikoff wrote, were at least two involving women simulating urination, a fairly specific kink. We don’t know what took place when Trump was there, but his presence at the club tells us he may not find this sort of thing unbearably disgusting.
Most of us do, which may be why this anecdote hasn’t received as much attention as other details in the Trump-Russia story. Trump benefits from the fact that looking too closely at his behavior, sexual and otherwise, feels soiling. This leads people observing him to construct elaborate theories to avoid admitting what seems to be staring us all in the face.
Consider a recent Washington Post scoop about Trump’s rage at feeling manipulated by aides to get tough on Russia. After America expelled more Russian officials than France or Germany last month, it said, Trump was “furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.”
The piece described how Trump reluctantly agreed to sell antitank missiles to Ukraine on the condition that it be kept secret, and was apoplectic when the news leaked, even though he was lauded for the decision. A puzzled senior administration official told The Post, “For some reason, when it comes to Russia, he doesn’t hear the praise.” The article considers a number of potential reasons for this, but doesn’t raise the rather obvious possibility that Trump is being blackmailed.
Like Comey, none of us know what really happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, and we may never find out. As outlandish as the rumor is, however, the idea that Trump would shy away from good press out of principle is far more so. To seriously discuss this presidency, you have to open your mind to the truly obscene.
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