It’s an epic saga, Trump and Russia. The tale predated his election, marred his presidential transition, dogged his first months in office, and obsessed the media from May 17, 2017—when Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government—to March 22, 2019. That was the day Attorney General William Barr notified Congress that Mueller had filed his report and closed the investigation. And the air started whooshing out of the media’s giant Vladimir Putin–shaped balloon.
“The Special Counsel’s investigation,” Barr wrote, “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Mueller’s team appears to have been divided over whether a president can obstruct justice by exercising his official duties, and so punted on this important question to Barr, whose word is final. As far as Robert Mueller is concerned, Donald Trump is clear.
There are no final endings in Washington, of course, no definitive settlements to public controversies, ultimate resolutions to scandal, or authoritative judgments on public officials. It would have been foolish to believe that the official end of the Mueller investigation would conclude the myriad speculations into Trump’s relationship with Putin and satiate the appetites of cable anchors and Democratic congressmen for accusations of Trump malfeasance.
If this truly were the end of the Russia saga, half of CNN and MSNBC would have to be reprogrammed, and conservatives would have few excuses to talk about the Deep State. With the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, the infrastructure is in place to keep the investigations and conspiracy theories going indefinitely. It’s not like coverage of the Russia probe ever relied overmuch on evidence anyway.
“It’s important to acknowledge the value of the serious journalism,” pleaded Margaret Sullivan in a recent Washington Post column, “because there’s a real risk that news organizations will take the edges off their coverage of this subject now.” You’ve got to be delusional to believe that the Post and the Times would ever dial back their reporting on President Trump, since it’s the best business decision they’ve made in decades. Also, isn’t coverage with “edges” supposed to cut against the subject of one’s reporting, not the reporter himself? I’m trying to think of articles and columns in elite media institutions that treated this story with the full degree of objectivity, empiricism, detachment, documentation, and dispassion the subject deserved.
It’s a strain.
Surely Sullivan can’t be holding up as “serious” the October 31, 2016, Slate article that asked, “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” The piece was a textbook example of the Russia recipe: Take an intriguing but inconclusive detail, stir vigorously with assumptions of bad faith, add a dash of sources both named and anonymous, and knead the copy until the only possible conclusion the reader can draw is that Donald Trump is up to some very, very bad things with the authoritarian ruler in Moscow. Doesn’t matter if the worst implications of the story don’t pan out.
“With some regrettable and damning exceptions,” Sullivan wrote, “individual stories that seemingly went too far—reality-based news outlets have done quite well on this story.” One marvels at a sentence like this, dripping as it is with self-satisfaction and condescension while acknowledging and diminishing the significance of “individual stories” that “seemingly went too far” by being, you know…wrong.
When Brian Ross falsely reported in December 2017 that President Trump ordered Michael Flynn to contact Russia before Election Day, he was just pushing the envelope, doing his job. It was a job he lost after ABC News retracted the story. Or when, the same month, CNN said WikiLeaks had given Donald Trump Jr. a heads-up about the Democratic National Committee emails it obtained, and this news, too, was soon falsified—well, we can’t let that be the skunk at the garden party.
About that April 2018 McClatchy story headlined, “Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier,” something no one else has been able to prove and that Michael Cohen, having turned state’s evidence, continues to deny: You can’t expect everyone to abide by the same standards as Margaret Sullivan’s friends, can you?
Same with the November 2018 ABC News story wondering, “There are dozens of sealed criminal indictments on the D.C. docket. Are they from Mueller?” That was just asking questions. Sure, the “sealed indictments” that a few cable anchors thought would be broken, in an act of almost biblical revelation, accompanied by white horses and earthquakes, the day Mueller filed his report—these turned out not to exist. But the piece was well sourced—it even had a quote from Barack Obama’s former Justice Department spokesman!
Or that time in December 2018 when the Guardian said Paul Manafort visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London during the 2016 campaign—a story no other organization corroborated—that was just part of the “aggressive coverage of Trump” Sullivan says is so important. Or the January 2019 Buzzfeed story that claimed Robert Mueller had evidence Donald Trump asked Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the (since abandoned) Trump Tower Moscow—a story so incendiary that the normally tightlipped Mueller actually denied it. Or the Vanity Fair stories detailing how, “according to three sources…Don Jr. has been telling friends he is worried about being indicted” by Mueller. All of this was performance, playacting, a way to embellish a few connections, a couple of intimations and confidences, into a privileged status of being “in the know,” when no one really knows anything.
How is journalism produced in our nation’s capital? Partial disclosure, innuendo, gossip, rumor, some enticing nugget that somebody heard from someone else. The best reporters do not relent until these wisps of information are substantiated, pinned down, confirmed in ways that will withstand scrutiny, and thus become news. The best are few and far between. The Trump era has instead put a premium on sensation, immediacy, prurience, exclusivity, and sympathy with the #Resistance.
Two weeks after Barr summarized the Mueller report’s findings to Congress, both the New York Times and Washington Post published stories exemplifying the Russia recipe. “Some on Mueller’s Team Say Report Was More Damaging Than Barr Revealed,” read the headline of a New York Times piece. “Limited information Barr has shared about Russia investigation frustrated some on Mueller’s team,” was the headline for the same article in the Post.
Nowhere in either story was an actual member of Mueller’s team quoted directly. “We’re not getting this directly from people who worked for Robert Mueller,” NBC’s Ken Dilanian said on the April 4 Meet the Press Daily. “We’re getting this from people who spoke to those people.” Oh, so it must be reliable then.
Wouldn’t it be unsurprising that “some on Mueller’s team” might disagree with Barr? He’s a Republican. By the end of the probe, the special counsel’s office included some 19 lawyers and twice as many FBI agents. Most of the lawyers working for Mueller were registered Democrats, not one was a registered Republican, many had donated to Democratic campaigns, Mueller’s deputy Andrew Weissmann attended Hillary Clinton’s Election Night party in 2016 and sent a congratulatory email to former acting attorney general Sally Yates after she refused to implement the president’s travel ban in January 2017, and another wrote op-eds for HuffPost.
A game of telephone—that’s what Washington has been playing since we first learned of Donald Trump’s possible connections to Russia. The latest round has taken us from the Trump-Russia conspiracy to the Trump-Barr conspiracy. Is this progress? The saga continues.