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Real or ‘fake news’? Either way, allegations of lewd tape pose challenge for Trump

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

Donald Trump, then co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization, poses next to Gabriela Isler, Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe, in Moscow on Nov. 9, 2013. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The tawdriest detail in former FBI director James B. Comey’s new memoir offers the perfect mix of sex, spies and kink — call it “Fifty Shades of le Carré” for the Trump era.

Comey describes President Trump’s obsession with uncorroborated intelligence suggesting that Russia had compromising material on him — specifically including footage of him watching prostitutes urinate on each other in a Moscow hotel room in 2013, while Trump was in town for the Miss Universe pageant.

The president has repeatedly denied the allegation — which emerged in early 2017 with news reports of a dossier funded by political opponents of his — and there currently exists no credible evidence to verify the claim. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders forcefully attacked the entire dossier in a news conference Friday.

Former FBI director James B. Comey details his conversations with President Trump in his new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” (Video: Patrick Martin, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

And yet.

Many are debating just how much credence to give to this most explosive and lurid of details. This run-of-the-mill urban legend has taken on geopolitical significance. 

Such is the problem for Trump. The rumored tape may be the rare bit of White House-branded “fake news” that is, in fact, fake. But Trump has cried “fake news” so frequently that his angry denials have lost their wallop, part of a routine call-and-response with the media rather than evidence of legitimate inaccuracy. 

For the president, the “fake” modifier frequently refers to news reports that he wishes were not true rather than those that are actually false. And the White House has an enormous credibility gap, with a long record of vociferously denying news reports — the shake-up of Trump’s legal team, or the ouster of now-former national security adviser H.R. McMaster — that are proved true days later.

According The Washington Post Fact Checker, as of Friday, Trump had made 2,436 false or misleading claims in 406 days — a rate of exactly six whoppers a day.

The allegation has also become shorthand for something even more problematic for the White House: the notion that Trump’s reluctance to forcefully confront Russia on myriad fronts is rooted in some sort of compromising material that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and allies have on the U.S. president. 

 “The pee tape is also just an avatar for the idea that the Russians have kompromat on him, and people I think for very good reason suspect the Russians very well might have kompromat on him,” said Tim Miller, a Republican strategist and Trump opponent, using the Russian word for intelligence used for blackmail. “But the most memorable potential element of it is this pee tape, what people kind of fall back on to represent that Putin may have something on him.”

 Even on the particulars of the alleged Moscow tape, discrepancies have emerged. In Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty,” the FBI director fired by Trump recounts the president’s claiming that the allegations could not be true because he never spent the night in the Moscow hotel room. That contradicts testimony Trump’s longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller, reportedly gave to Congress late last year, when he seemed to acknowledge that Trump did stay overnight in the hotel while asserting that nothing sordid occurred there.

Another challenge for the White House is the sheer number of seemingly outlandish stories involving Trump that turn out to be rooted in fact. The president did, in fact, abruptly hang up on the leader of one of the country’s staunchest allies — the Australian prime minister — in a phone call shortly after becoming commander in chief, when the conversation turned contentious over refugees. He did, in fact, refer to some African nations as “shithole countries.” And he did, in fact, congratulate Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on his recent electoral victory, which is largely believed to be a sham, after being expressly warned not to by his national security advisers in a memo with the words “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

Such incidents have allowed the tantalizing possibility that the Russia tape just might exist to percolate on the fringes of respectability.

In an interview with ABC News, for instance, Comey teased that he could not definitively rule the rumor as false. 

“I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but 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. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

 So far, the GOP attack on Comey’s memoir has largely steered clear of the Russian hotel room specifics. Talking points sent out by the Republican National Committee alleged Comey had a “long history of misstatements and misconduct” and noted that Democrats — many of whom fault him for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss — have also been critical of Comey. Sanders in her Friday news conference excoriated both the dossier and Comey.

“This is nothing more than a poorly executed PR stunt by Comey to desperately rehabilitate his tattered reputation and enrich his own bank account by peddling a book that belongs in the bargain bin of the fiction section,” Sanders said.

And in a duo of tweets Friday morning, the president called Comey “a proven LEAKER & LIAR” and “an untruthful slime ball.”

“It was my great honor to fire James Comey!” Trump concluded. 

But as a purely political matter, simply denying a falsehood is not necessarily sufficient.

Tommy Vietor, a host of “Pod Save America” who worked for President Barack Obama, had to combat a number of fake rumors in the Obama White House — including the insidious falsehood fanned by Trump that Obama was not born in the United States. He said that once a narrative enters the media ether, it can become uncontrollable. 

“The lesson for me during the White House years was that once a rumor gets some traction, it’s almost impossible to fix it, even if it is false,” he said. “The problem with the pee tape allegation is it is so graphic, it is so memorable, that it doesn’t matter how many times you knock it down — people are going to remember it.”

 And, of course, some people are also relishing a golden moment of schadenfreude.

“This is the guy who said Ted Cruz’s father killed Kennedy, and who said Barack Obama was an African-African who was an illegitimate president, and myriad other absurd attacks on his opponents that he knew were untrue but he advanced anyway because they lived up to a narrative he wanted to push,” Miller said.

So, Miller added, “If the pee tape helps uphold a narrative that he’s a Russian stooge and also an immoral cretin, well, I think a lot of people believe he sort of earned having to bat some of this down.”