There were a surprising number of commentators willing to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt following his address to Congress on Tuesday. Perhaps the absence of a full-frontal attack on the media caught Donald-watchers off guard. Modest attempts to reach out beyond core supporters and an appeal to American optimism received generally favourable coverage. Never mind that much of what the President said was not backed up by facts.
In the aftermath of his speech, even the famous Trump Twitter feed has been quiet, aside from an upbeat message on Thursday referencing stock market gains and consumer confidence. All in all, we appear to be in the middle of a mini-charm offensive. The question is whether it can last and, if not, what is most likely to break the spell?
Russia remains the issue that has the greatest capacity to undermine the President’s new-found sense of calm. Democrats will seek to oppose him on any number of policy matters. But on the question of whether there were links between Mr Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials in the run-up to the election, the danger to the President is that not all Republicans will fall behind him simply out of broader loyalty to the Grand Old Party.
In that context, it is highly significant that Christopher Steele, the former MI6 operative who was behind the explosive dossier linking Mr Trump’s team to the Russian government, has been approached by the US Senate Intelligence Committee with a view to giving evidence to its enquiries into the subject. The fact that US politicians are said even to be prepared to facilitate initial meetings on “neutral” territory – either the UK or elsewhere – speaks volumes for their desire to get to the bottom of exactly what Mr Steele knows about connections between Mr Trump’s coterie and the Kremlin.
These latest revelations are unlikely to go down well with the White House. The President has made it his business to attack Mr Steele’s credibility, calling him a “failed spy” and referring to the claims in his intelligence briefing as “fabricated”. Meanwhile, his supporters already appear set to disrupt the enquiries by the intelligence committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Reince Priebus, the President’s Chief of Staff, is said to have asked the FBI to dispute media reports of contacts between Mr Trump’s circle and the Russians. And David Nunes, the Republican chair of the House intelligence panel, was condemned by the committee’s top-ranking Democrat for making public assertions about an alleged lack of evidence against Mr Trump associates.
Yet for every attempt to undermine ongoing investigations, new disclosures seem to emerge. In the latest twist, it was confirmed by the Justice Department that Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice met the Russian ambassador to the US during the election race. This came after he told his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have communications with the Russians”. Mr Sessions says he did not mislead the hearing because he had been asked about meetings involving the “Trump campaign”, not meetings he had in his capacity as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee.
Ultimately, allegations of improper links between the President’s campaign team and a Russian administration which appears to have been bent on influencing the outcome of the election are about as serious as it gets, for all that Mr Trump may try to dismiss them as “fake news”. It is imperative that the Congress intelligence committees – and the FBI – carry out their investigations fully, fairly and openly. Hearing what Christopher Steele has to say about it all would be a bold and positive move; and may help us understand whether Russia will, in the end, be Trump’s bear-trap.