“How well do you know the mysteries of Donald Trump?” asks Moscow Communist Youth. It’s a trivia test about the 45th American president, presented by a newspaper in the Russian capital that was once a propaganda sheet for pubescent proletarians and is now a racy tabloid. Like every other publication, website and broadcaster in the universe, Moskovskiy Komsomolets—the paper’s official name, usually shortened to MK—peeks through the curtains of the White House with bewilderment, horror, humour and fear of what Trump might do next.
Let’s begin the quiz:
1. If Donald Trump lived in Russia, what would his patronymic name be?
2. Why does Trump use the red button on his desktop?
- To launch nuclear missiles
- To declare a nationwide alert
- To obtain a glass with dietary cola
- To call a doctor
The answers, of course, are Fredovich and sugar-free pop. (A patronymic is derived from one’s father’s first name.) Every Russian, it seems, knows everything about Trump, as does every Kenyan, Kazakh, Kuwaiti and Kurd. (But not every Chinese—more about that later.)
“If you got two answers wrong, you are either a dim bulb for politics or a Hillary Clinton fan,” sneers Communist Youth. But other Russians cover the Age of Trump in a much less lighthearted vein.
“I was in the minority of people who were saying that it would be better for Russia to have the more predictable Hillary Clinton than the completely unpredictable Trump, and unfortunately I was right,” Maxim Yusin is saying from Moscow. Yusin is one of Russia’s most respected journalists, a columnist for the eminently serious newspaper Kommersant and a frequent commentator on international affairs for several of the television networks that President Vladimir Putin has allowed to remain on the air.
“When the members of the Duma drank champagne for his victory,” Yusin remembers, “in Moscow it was like a dream for one or two weeks, and then we understood that it was only an illusion. We understood that the American bureaucracy is so strong that Trump is not strong enough to influence it. When journalists began to understand this, the coverage became much more balanced and much more critical.”
“I don’t have any instructions on how to ‘treat’ Trump,” says Grigory Dubovitskiy, who has spent the past three years in Washington as a correspondent for RIA Novosti, the Russian equivalent of the Canadian Press. “The main instruction is to find news—things that matter and are interesting for our Russian audience.
“From my point of view, relations between the U.S. and Russia are at a low point. Trump’s actions in Syria are really disturbing: the latest bombardment is just another example. His standing in the world, I guess, is not clear for the world yet. I can’t remember any real accomplishment by Trump in international affairs, except probably the one related to North Korea, even though the talks have not started.”
“How do you view American media coverage of Trump?” Dubovitskiy is asked.
“The coverage depends on who is covering,” he replies. “My personal impression is that the U.S. mainstream media mostly differ from neutral to negative. It is hard to find a positive report about the president even if he says or does things that are generally recognized as positive.”
In Kommersant, Yusin writes that “during the election campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly stated the need to establish a partnership and friendly relations with Vladimir Putin. But after his victory, exactly the opposite happened. Under the pressure of Congress, Democrats, ‘hawks’ from his own administration and the press, Trump makes one anti-Russian step after another, driving the relationship between the two nuclear superpowers into a hopeless impasse. The American establishment broke Donald Trump without much difficulty and crossed out his original good intentions.”
“We have no illusions that our relations with America will be normalized in the next 10 years,” Yusin says on the phone. “If there is no other way but to be adversaries, to be enemies, maybe it is better for us to have somebody with as many problems as Donald Trump has. If it would be someone more intelligent, maybe he would be even more dangerous for Russia.”
And then there is the other dimension of the Trumpian universe: the unending panoply of scandal, salaciousness and shame. This is a topic that has been well-covered in the Russian press, including an article in Moscow Communist Youth headlined: “Stormy Daniels blooms fragrantly.”
“The former porn actress (similar to the Chekists, are they former?) Stormy Daniels,” the article began, “who is suing both President Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen, said in an interview with Penthouse magazine (the leading organ of her industry) that if she won the case, then all the $130,000 will be transferred on behalf of Trump and Cohen to the organization Planned Parenthood, which supports a large network of abortion clinics.” (The Chekists were Lenin’s secret police, licensed to liquidate suspected enemies of the revolution. Note the writer’s sly insertion—in an unsigned column—that asks if such men really are extinct in Putin’s Russia.)
“For Russians, Stormy is not a problem at all, because when we speak about political correctness, people here just smile,” Yusin comments. “All that noise that you are making about it is proof of Americans’ hypocrisy. In Russia, we are not politically correct. If Trump would be a homosexual, if it would be a love story with a boy, nobody would even speak about it. The fact is, he is the only heterosexual white man being persecuted in America for having sex with a woman.”
A world away, the same topic:
“I was watching, with great amusement I might add, Donald J. Trump’s unfolding scandal with a porn star by the name of Stormy Daniels,” writes Amby Lusekelo in Tanzania’s Daily News. “And that is not to say that I’m judging her at all for what she does, no. I’m, however, laughing, and quite vocally too, at the DJT. He really just can’t seem to get his stuff together . . . I love America for their freedom of speech. Stormy Daniels lives to tell her story and it’s being published. Must be nice. I know for a fact that if it was here, the likes of Stormy Daniels wouldn’t have gotten the airtime to save her life. No media station would be willing to speak ill of the president in any way necessary. I wouldn’t have even dared to say anything about anything.”
“The fact that we are able to write about Trump in this way means a lot to us,” Lusekelo tells Maclean’s from East Africa. “Trump is one world leader that is making a mockery of what it is to be a leader and we, the world press, can raise questions and speak our minds freely regarding his conduct.”
(Last year, nine Tanzanian journalists were fired from the state television network after they reported that Donald Trump had lauded that country’s leader, John Magufuli, as “an African hero” in a speech in which Trump compared him to other “big men” who “have declined to leave power doing nothing.” That speech never happened. The journalists made it up. “Broadcaster suspends nine journalists over Trump fake news,” was the headline in This Is Africa. “Journalism ethics and codes of practice have become a topical issue of late,” the story went on, “and the issue of fake news has been making headlines.” )
Viewing Trump from a distance, Lusekelo sees “a little boy who never grew up and is in desperate need of love and approval. The more this little boy does to get this love and approval, the more the world inches toward a world war. He saw the love, admiration and respect Barack Obama got and he thinks he deserves it too, only he hasn’t done anything to deserve it.”
“For Africans, Trump’s ongoing saga is like the endless reality shows Americans broadcast every day—full of plot twists and endless drama. Who doesn’t like a good TV show?”
In 2018, every editor, reporter, field producer and on-air personality from Zanzibar to Krasnodar must confront the challenge of how to cover the uncoverable presidency of Donald Fredovich Trump.
“I’m exhausted, physically exhausted,” Víctor Sancho, Washington bureau chief for the Mexican newspaper El Universal, is sighing, his weary eyes rimmed in black and his ankles draped in Kermit the Frog socks. “By 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., I am completely devastated. My battery’s out of power, but you’ve got to keep working. With Obama, you always knew—nine to five was your schedule. But with Trump, at 9 p.m. there’s news, at 5 a.m. there’s a tweet making news. Russia. Syria, the wall. Immigration. It never ends.”
It’s an April afternoon in Arlington, Va. Sancho—plus at least a dozen other Mexican correspondents—are at a news conference that is announcing the addition of an eldering drug lord named Rafael Caro Quintero to the FBI’s list of 10 Most Wanted Fugitives. More than 30 years ago, Caro Quintero and his henchmen allegedly captured, tortured and murdered an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency, an atrocity that the U.S. Department of Justice, for all its current Sessions-Comey-Rosenstein-McCabe madness at the top, has never forgotten at street level.
“With narcoterrorism, border issues, immigration, it has always been a big gig, the biggest gig,” says José Díaz-Briseño, Washington bureau chief since 2005 for Mexico’s Reforma newspaper. “For Mexicans, America is a huge show, even without Trump. But then what we got on top of that was all the craziness, the tweeting, the wall.”
Díaz-Briseño attended several of Trump’s campaign rallies at which the unhinged candidate thundered against the Mexican state and people, yet he covered them with equanimity, not disdain or fear. “ ‘Build the wall! Lock her up! CNN sucks!’—I saw this as entertainment,” he says. “It’s like they were Trump’s greatest hits. People went there to have fun. I never felt threatened.”
“I was in Mexico in October 2016, just before the election,” Sancho recalls. “Like everybody else, my editors thought it was impossible for Trump to win. Then he won, and we had to take him seriously, but I don’t know how to manage the evolution from clown to president.
“For me, it is difficult to stop my editors from demanding stories 24 hours a day,” he says. Sancho is a native of Barcelona who took up his current posting just in time to hear Donald Trump say of Mexico that “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
“It’s like they are thirsting to get him out of office and they expect me to make it happen,” groans the 31-year-old, who has a girlfriend but “no kids, no dogs, no time.” “I’ve told them over and over that I don’t have that kind of access.”
But @vsancho can tweet right back at the president: “Life is a continuous and exhausting reality show broadcast by Trump TV.”
“He’s like crazy,” Sancho says in Arlington. “You never know what he’s going to say next, or how he’s going to manage his White House. Every day something crazy happens. After a year and a half, it’s not boring. It’s exhausting.”
“Is there a sense in Mexico that the Stormy Daniels affair makes Trump seem admirably macho?” the correspondents are asked.
“If they think that in Mexico, they think it privately,” Díaz-Briseño replies. “The clown aspect is more important than the macho aspect,” Sancho agrees.
Exhaustion, fascination, revulsion: the journalists who have been dispatched to Washington to describe the Age of Trump reel from the onslaught of breaking news and broken traditions as they struggle to keep up with the biggest story of the 21st century, and of their own careers. “Trump is my big bull, my toro, and this is my Pamplona,” says Jan Martínez Ahrens, U.S. bureau chief since 2017 for El País, a Madrid-based newspaper that, with more than 100 million print and online readers, is one of the most influential voices in the Spanish-speaking world. At 52, divorced, with two teenaged daughters left behind in Spain, Martínez Ahrens sees in the 45th president “a demagogue, but a clever one,” who is “the fruit of great disenchantment, which we also have in Europe.”
“I don’t think he’s stupid, not at all,” the Spaniard, who previously was based in Mexico City, says at the National Press Building, one block from a White House that has granted zero presidential access to journalists from outside the U.S. “He has political instincts and he uses them. Every day, he wants to be the king of the agenda, and he nearly always succeeds.”
In early April, Martínez Ahrens travelled to Memphis and wrote passionately on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in an article headlined: “The rain that killed Dr. King continues to fall on the United States.” This was the rain of “racism, xenophobia and ignorance” that has manifested itself in The Donald and his deplorables.
“You have to leave Washington,” the correspondent says. “You have to go to Kansas, to Iowa—they love him there.”
Finally, there are the Chinese correspondents in the American capital, one of them leaning over at a State Department press conference to whisper, “I can only talk to you off the record.” This is a senior reporter with a state-owned outlet—as if any independent voices would be allowed to report their truths to the Chinese billions—taking orders directly from Beijing: “We have been told not to report on such salacious things as Stormy Daniels,” the journalist confides. “Such stories would never be permitted. There is no Twitter in China, so people do not know everything that Trump says.
“We are sometimes confused by this man. When he met with President Xi at Mar-a-Lago, everything seemed to go so well. When Trump came to Beijing, everything went very well. But then he came back and imposed the high tariffs. We have reported that your Midwest farmers are very upset about this. These are the stories that we report.
“I cannot say this on the record. But I sometimes copy his tweets on my social media so that my friends in China will know about them. Trump is so unpredictable, we think that maybe he is crazy.”
MORE ABOUT DONALD TRUMP:
- Former U.S. ambassador to Russia on Putin: ‘He thinks we’re out to get him’
- How politicians whitewash their past by criticizing the present
- Stormy Daniels vs. Donald Trump: Five ways the Trump camp has spun the $130,000 payment
- The White House Correspondents’ Dinner plays right into Donald Trump’s hands