Once again America is living through one of those Trump-era Friday afternoons that feels sticky with anticipation of some major horrible news event blasting a hole in the weekend. In one corner, longtime Trump consigliere Michael Cohen is under criminal investigation over in an already complex case centering on whatever it is he does all day. In another corner, Republican National Committee fundraiser Elliott Broidy is resigning after it was revealed Cohen helped him pay $1.6 million to a Playboy playmate who said he got her pregnant. In yet another corner, former FBI Director James Comey's book about his tenure under Donald Trump isn't even out yet but has already enraged the president and inspired a media blitz from the GOP. In our fourth corner, Trump has for unclear reasons decided to pardon Scooter Libby, a former Dick Cheney aide caught up in a scandal more than a decade ago.
We're out of corners now, but in addition to all that, Russia is claiming a horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria was a "false flag," Trump has ordered a task force to look into the Post Office's finances (possibly as part of his vendetta against Amazon), former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (famously sacked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month) was raked over the coals by a just-released report, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is said to be preparing to be fired by Trump, who seems increasingly inclined to order that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation be shut down. That move, more than any of the other developments, would likely trigger widespread protests, panic in Congress, and who knows what else.
Then there's the pee tape, the incredibly stupid internet obsession that refuses to die.
The "pee tape," for the uninitiated, refers to the allegation that Trump was filmed ordering prostitutes to pee on a hotel bed in Moscow. This was the juiciest part of the "Steele dossier," a 2016 collection of raw intelligence compiled former British government spy Christopher Steele, who at the time was being paid by an opposition research firm hired by Democrats. The dossier was published by BuzzFeed just after the election; subsequently, some parts have reportedly been corroborated by the FBI and others have been found to be false.
In the dossier, an unnamed "close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trip to Moscow" reported that "Trump's (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs. Obama (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB [Russian security services] control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to." A female hotel staffer and another unnamed source backed up this account and said it had happened probably in 2013. (A fourth source, described as a former top Russian intelligence official, said that Trump's behavior had given the Russians unspecified "embarrassing material" they could use to blackmail him.)
When BuzzFeed released the dossier in January 2017, it sparked a lot of discussion, but nothing has stuck in the public imagination like the idea that the Russians have an incriminating golden showers video with which to blackmail Trump. And Comey has given everyone an excuse to talk about the pee tape again—in his book, he writes that the president asked him to prove disprove the allegation because Trump thought there might be a "one percent" chance his wife would think it was real. In an excerpt of an ABC interview that will air Sunday, Comey expanded on this account, telling George Stephanopoulos, "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."
This has various anti-Trump commentators, on Twitter especially but also in real publications, speculating that now, more than ever, the pee tape seems to be real. Sometimes it's obvious these people are joking, but sometimes it's clear that they're serious. To which I say: STOP IT.
It's not that I don't get that it's fun to joke about the president of the United States watching Russian sex workers pee on a hotel bed. It's not even that I think that it's 100 percent impossible to imagine such a thing—Trump entered what Bill Simmons dubbed the "Tyson Zone" long ago, meaning any story about him feels plausible.
But thinking something might be true (or even that it seems more likely than it did a year ago) is a long, long way from making it true. There's still no evidence that that bit of the Steele dossier has been verified by anyone, and even the Steele dossier's account relies on secondhand sources who didn't witness the alleged peeing themselves. Comey's account of Trump being worried Melania might believe it doesn't prove anything. I mean, surely Trump knows what his reputation is and how that might lead Melania to not automatically dismiss such rumors. After all, this is a guy whose fixer/lawyer—Cohen—had orchestrated at least two payouts to women who said they had affairs with him after his youngest son was born.
The broader, less funny allegation concerning the pee tape is that Russian intelligence has proof of Trump's shady doings they could hold over him. (This is something Steele himself was reportedly worried about.) But there's no hard evidence of even that being true. Though Trump has gone out of his way to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin over the years, that's part of his pattern of being friendly to strongmen in general. In fact, his administration has undertaken several anti-Russian moves. These include selling arms to Ukraine, imposing new sanctions on Russian individuals (albeit more slowly than some critics would have liked), and joining other Western countries in expelling Russian diplomats. Just this week, Trump called out Putin by name for the first time and rattled his Twitter saber in Russia's direction. And he recently appointed John Bolton, a noted Russia hawk (really, an all-purpose hawk), as national security advisor.
Setting aside the wisdom of any of those moves, does that sound like a president terrified of urine-soaked kompromat? Of course, you could argue these anti-Russia moves are just a way to shield Trump from the charge that he's being blackmailed, but at that point you might as well bust out the corkboard, notecards, and string.
There is no shortage of reasons to oppose Trump and no shortage of scandals to fixate on—in fact, this week it seems impossible to keep up with all the potential wrongdoing swirling around the man's disaster of an administration. So why keep yammering on about the pee tape? At best, it's an internet joke that has been thoroughly driven into the ground. At worst, it makes Trump opponents look a little unhinged, not entirely unlike Hillary Clinton haters insisting on rating about Uranium One.
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