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We need to focus on the real damage Trump is doing

I bumped into Bret Baier, the Fox News host, at a Washington cocktail party Wednesday night where it seemed everybody was chatting about the latest White House insanity: President Trump joking about "Pocahontas" to Native Americans, reviving the Obama "birther" allegation, suggesting the Access Hollywood video was fake, retweeting anti-Muslim videos made by British white-supremacists.

Most assumed Trump was just being crazy, but Baier had a theory: Whenever Trump escalates such antics, he is agitated about news that is about to break. Maybe, Baier speculated, Trump knew something about the Russia probe that we didn't yet know.

Now we do. On Friday morning came former national security adviser Michael Flynn's guilty plea, the most ominous development for Trump yet in the Russia probe. Court documents show that Flynn is cooperating with special prosecutor Robert Mueller and that Flynn's Russian contacts were made under direction from higher-ups — and there weren't too many higher than Flynn on the campaign other than Trump himself. The notion that Flynn has the goods on Trump would explain why Trump was reluctant to fire him, tried to get the FBI to stop probing Flynn — and seemed unglued this week as the news of Flynn's cooperation was about to become public.

Though predictions are perilous in the age of Trump, this really could be the beginning of the end of the national horror his tenure has been. If Baier is correct — as I believe he is — that Trump gets ever more outrageous when he feels cornered, then this means the nation is entering a perilous new period. We can expect Trump to get ever more dangerous and desperate in his distractions as he hears Mueller's footsteps. Trump's erraticism is damaging in its own right, to alliances and civility, but the greatest danger is that while we chase Trump's distractions, we lose sight of real calamity.

This week was a good example. Trump raised the level of crazy. We in the media took the bait. And you, dear reader, encouraged us.

I asked my digital colleagues at The Washington Post for the top 25 pieces that appeared online in the Post this week before the Flynn news broke. Along with news stories about current intrigue — the Matt Lauer firing, James O'Keefe's failed sting operation against the Post, Prince Harry's engagement — the top items were dominated by Trump insanity: his Muslim-video retweets, his insult of the British prime minister, his attacks on CNN, his war on the "war on Christmas," the insults he traded with Democrats, his "unhinged" behavior and his veering past "guardrails" of what's acceptable.

But in the top 25 were only two about the monstrous tax bill as it made its way through the Senate this week. There were only two about North Korea testing a missile that could strike anywhere in America. There was only one about Trump's takeover of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And there wasn't a single story about the sprawling Russia scandal.

In other words: We are all being played for suckers as we get exercised over Trump's diversions.

It's possible that Trump does crazy things simply because he's crazy. But the outbursts serve a real purpose. They provide cover. While the nation gapes at Trump implying Joe Scarborough's involvement in the death of a congressional aide, the administration and its allies achieve all kinds of abominations.

If this tax bill were to see more sunlight, it would never become law. It adds $1 trillion in debt, ultimately increases taxes on those making less than $75,000 a year, gives most of the breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent, is forecast to add negligible economic growth and would force massive cuts to Medicare and Obamacare. But while Trump distracted the nation, GOP leaders strong-armed holdouts all week.

Likewise, the Post published several largely unnoticed pieces this week about the failure to renew the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expired on Sept. 30. States have begun to notify beneficiaries (9 million children) that they may be cut off.

I tried to ignore the Trump shenanigans this week, instead writing about the drug-industry executive Trump tapped to oversee drug pricing and about the administration lawyer who orchestrated Trump's takeover of the CFPB after serving as lawyer for a payday lender cited by the CFPB for abuses. But such pieces generate only a fraction of the "clicks" of pieces I and others write about Trump's pyrotechnics.

Those pyrotechnics are going to increase now that Mueller has turned Flynn. Trump's distractions will be impossible to ignore. But we — lawmakers, the media and the public — need to keep our focus on the real damage Trump is doing.

— Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.