Yesterday, MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough were subject to typical (if unusually gross) insults from the President of the United States, leading to a standard round of milquetoast criticism from his fellow Republicans and futile rage from everyone else. But it's their claim that Trump tried to blackmail them through the threat of negative press coverage that's making news all around the world. Even the BBC has it as its top story.
What started yesterday as an undignified personal spat between Donald Trump and the hosts of a cable news show has morphed into something much more sinister – allegations of White House machinations that tread ever so close to outright blackmail.
If what Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough say is true, they were the targets of political dark arts reminiscent of the schemes of the Watergate "fixers" during the Nixon White House. Could Trump aides have really used the threat of an embarrassing story in a tabloid newspaper to pressure the two hosts to provide more favourable coverage?
Trump admitted it, in one his bizarrely revealing attempts at misdirection…
Watched low rated @Morning_Joe for first time in long time. FAKE NEWS. He called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no! Bad show
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2017
…and yet we're so deep into the surreal dreamland of his presidency that it seems nothing he says or does could possibly lead to consequences. It's as if he's so deranged that his own party simply doesn't feel his behavior will reflect badly on them, irrespective of their support for and tolerance of it.
To many Americans, this seems almost like empty drama–a distraction, perhaps, from the partial implementation of the administration's travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. But I wonder if to people in other countries, Trump has always been a superficial spectacle. This story has unusual international import because it looks a lot like the kind of secretive political wetwork they associate with quieter, more dangerous men. So attention is being paid to reportage like this:
Ms Brzezinski said reporters from the supermarket tabloid began harassing her family.
"They were calling my children," she said. "They were calling close friends.
"These calls persisted for quite some time and then Joe had the conversations that he had with the White House where they said 'oh, this could go away'."