Separating fact from flak in coverage of the Mueller investigation

Special counsel Robert Mueller at the U.S. Capitol in June 2017. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the wheels of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation grind inexorably toward Donald Trump and others in his entourage, the storyline is clear, at least to The Washington Post: Justice Dept. deals fatal blow to Trump’s Russia ‘hoax.’

But to right-wing eyes, what matters is not abundant evidence of Russian information warfare. For them, the narrative is one that has been laid down by Trump himself: that he was the victim of a “Russia hoax,” a “witch hunt,” crystallizing the resentment of Trump’s collaborators at the gall of any government agency displaying interest in their standard-bearer’s foreign dealings. As Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear write in The New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s strategy for dealing with charges of Russian meddling has not varied much since the campaign: deny, obfuscate, play down and, since Election Day, blame it on Democrats bitter after Hillary Clinton’s defeat.”

It is hard to say whether Trump’s strategy is the horse driving the right-wing media or the cart being driven by them. In a world where Trump hastens to recycle themes from Fox News, disinformation whizzes with ease through a tightly wound feedback loop. What’s certain is that no one in this Make America Great Again loop is terribly exercised about assaults on the integrity of the election process. Neither Trump nor his media bodyguards rise in righteous indignation against Russian invasions of American sovereignty.

ICYMI: Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.

For months now, Trump and his amplifiers have been setting the bar of culpability at “collusion”—which is not, by the way, a crime in the first place­—so that, for them, the absence of collusion charges translates into innocence. Picking up on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s response to a question about the Russia indictment at his February 16 news conference (“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge”), Fox News is at pains to insist that “no Americans were knowing participants,” adding that the indictment “effectively returns focus to the meddling activities out of Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election, following a string of charges relating to the actions of Trump associates.” Echoing Trump’s own tweet, Breitbart is blunter: “STILL NO ‘COLLUSION’: TRUMP TEAM ‘UNWITTING.’” Not to be outdone, Alex Jones’s Infowars also headlines “UNWITTING”­—preceded by “TRUMP CLEARED?” The Daily Caller ups the ante with “COLLUSION CRUMBLES.” Mike Cernovich wins the inventiveness prize:  “Muller [sic] indictment proves no Trump collusion.”

For the right, the news is about the dog that hasn’t­—or hasn’t yet—barked. But of course, the standing militias of the right have worked overtime for months to impugn Mueller, no longer cast as a solid-jawed stand-up FBI hero and wounded Vietnam veteran but a tool of the intelligence agencies’ “deep state.” If Mueller ever chanced to travel to Paris, someone in the rightosphere will no doubt declare that he mysteriously exchanged attaché cases with a sinister figure on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg. Until that frabjous day, the vocabulary of the right’s repertory is limited. Mueller is either the tool of a corruptly politicized “administrative state” or—at least for a moment—an instrument of exculpation.

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The flak barrage has been incoming thick and fast to discredit Mueller’s investigation and the Democrats on the Congressional intelligence committees. During intense weeks of revelations, the shape of the attacks is plain­—if the curious onlooker will only connect the dots. Would that more journalists were in the dot-connecting business to put patterns in sharper relief. Here are the four most recent dots at this writing:

  • Two weeks before the February 16 indictment, Trump rewarded a #releasethememo Twitter campaign by permitting release of the memo in question, a skimpy little thing by Representative Devin Nunes of Fresno, California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes’ underwhelming disclosure purported to demonstrate that the FBI abused surveillance law in the process of gathering information on one-time Trump advisor Carter Page, thus discrediting Christopher Steele, the longtime intelligence agent whose infamous “dossier” (actually, a sequence of memos) alleged multiple contacts between Trump and various unsavory Russians over a period of many years. But breathless with excitement that their smoking memo had at last seen the light of day, right-wing media generally failed to note what it said in oh-by-the-way fashion: that the Page investigation predated Steele’s revelations. As mainstream media noted, an Australian diplomat had already told the FBI about Russia collecting dirt on Hillary Clinton. For pursuing an inquiry into Page, Steele was irrelevant. Still, the Nunes memo grabbed headlines—two sets of them, actually. First the memo was coming, then it was here.
  • Meanwhile, Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been so worked up about infringements on American sovereignty that they recommend perjury charges against Steele. In the Republicans’ looking-glass world, it is the investigator who needs to be investigated. The question of what Donald Trump knew and when he knew it is an irrelevancy. The magician instructs the audience to pay no attention to what his right hand is doing while he tosses confetti with the left. And again, mainstream media take such accusations as big news.

In the Republicans’ looking-glass world, it is the investigator who needs to be investigated.

  • Third, coverage of the Grassley-Graham initiative cast aspersions on an email from former Obama official Susan Rice, which the senators surmised proved something sinister about still-incumbent President Barack Obama telling then-FBI Director James Comey that he wanted Russia-Trump matters handled “by the book.”
  • Then, on February 5, came Nunes’ declaration to Fox News that his investigation is moving into “phase two,” in which the target is Jonathan Winer, formerly the Obama State Department’s special envoy to Libya. By Winer’s account, in September 2016, he received from his longtime friend, the Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal, a set of notes written by an activist-journalist named Cody Shearer, alleging bad behavior by Trump in and around Russia. (Blumenthal is also my friend.) Winer passed Shearer’s notes along to Steele, whom Winer knew from their shared interest in Russian criminality. I have read Shearer’s notes. Some are borderline incoherent, running a parallel track to Trump sex allegations made famous by Steele’s memo. The more cogent part concerns corrupt Trump hotel operations in Azerbaijan, previously described in far greater detail by Adam Davidson in The New Yorker.

The flak keeps coming. The right-wing tack is to fling their accusations and expect their sheer number to amount to a claim that Trump is a victim. There is no logic to the attempt to tie Shearer to the decision by a FISA court to justify surveillance of Trump campaigners. The allegations only make sense if we see them as instances of Republican strategy. As Joe Conason wrote in BuzzFeed, “The Shearer file makes no reference to Carter Page­—none whatsoever—so its contents could hardly have persuaded a judge to approve a warrant on the former Trump adviser.”

ICYMI: Media polarization uses paranoia framework to wall off broader reality

Nevertheless, the Nunes proclamation has enabled Fox News to generate headlines like:  “Was Clinton attack dog Sidney Blumenthal involved in launch of Russia collusion investigation?”

To treat Nunes’ allegations at face value is journalistic malpractice. If Shearer cannot be named without reference to Clinton connections, why should Devin Nunes be cited seriously without reference to his view that “global warming is nonsense”?

The flak keeps coming, the more the better. We’ve been here. The Benghazi investigation of Hillary Clinton was the portal to the investigation of her email server. The email investigation led on, and on, while it took the mainstream press months to notice that Donald Trump was an inveterate liar.

Little concrete is likely to come of the Nunes memo, the Grassley-Graham initiative, the Rice aspersion, or the Shearer “dossier.” But the point of flak is not to win the war. The point of flak is to distract the pilot. And the point of the current attack-the-investigators barrage is to dazzle a credulous press and try to steer public opinion.

Fortunately, even as journalists bend over backwards to credit the right’s distraction crusades, Mueller’s investigation shows every sign of rolling on undistracted.

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.