Getting the Trump-Putin story right

July 17, 2018
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.

If a Newseum 2.0 ever rises from its glitzy ruins, a prominent place in its annals of lede-burying ought to go to this October 31, 2016 New York Times headline: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”

The problem is not simply that those three little words—“No Clear Link”—misled in themselves. After all, so much was acknowledged last May toward the bottom of a long Times piece by Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, and Nicholas Fando: The key fact of the article—that the F.B.I. had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign—was published in the tenth paragraph.

As the “broad investigation” has broadened and deepened, it becomes clear to those with open eyes that the problem is far bigger. It is in fact not a problem but a condition. It is a feature, not a bug—a deeply engraved feature, a web of assumptions, a crisis of credulity that has long prevented news organs from coming to grips with the immensity that has overtaken the United States of America at the hands of Donald Trump and his cronies. And even now, as Trump embarrasses and revolts a wide swath of the American nation, some of our top journalists fail to identify the pattern.

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After months of White House propaganda against the intelligence services’ “rigged witch hunt”—presumably Trump would not prefer a fair witch hunt?—will the press understand that Trump and his base is doing what he has done for decades, back to the salad days when he dropped drooling tidbits into the tabloids? Could it be any clearer that he is stoking  public opinion to reject the Mueller investigation prima facie? Can it be doubted that preventing his getting away with it requires a massive rethink of the essential news narrative about Trump going back years?

After months of recalculation, of reappraisals agonizing and not, of euphemisms and of mea culpas loud and soft, the Times does not know with whom it is dealing. It is as if the mafia were being approached as a quaint bunch of oddballs. It’s as if oversight were the most plausible reason why the famous Rob Goldstone email addressed to Donald J. Trump, Jr., subject-lined “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” failed to “set off alarm bells” among the likes of Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Trump Jr. in Trump Tower—and not the far more plausible explanation that Russian cronies were nothing new at making approaches to Trumpworld. Trump’s buildings were homes away from home for all manner of criminals and Russian investors, as were his foreign ventures.

The Times does not know with whom it is dealing. It is as if the mafia were being approached as a quaint bunch of oddballs.

This is what journalists called “context.” Call it background, call it whatever you want. But if you ignore it, you are reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.

Trump is not just eccentric, ignorant, vicious, self-dealing, and preeningly deceptive. He doesn’t just lie—not randomly. He may or may not be delusional. He has long surrounded himself with criminals. His history of racketeering connections and his lies about them was reported decades ago by Wayne Barrett and other reporters, though subsequently discarded presumably because it was “old news.”

But the core of the matter now is what leads a former director of the CIA not only to call the president of the United States “treasonous” and ‘imbecilic” but to say he “rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’” Whenever asked a straight question about his relationship to Putin and Putin’s cronies, Trump has ducked, scammed, and systematically obscured the findings of God knows how many professional investigators and investigative reporters. Is it not time that when faced with these facts, journalists stop asking fatuous questions? Should they not adopt, as a working hypothesis going in, the assumption that his lies and evasions are clear hints of what drives him?

It was to the credit of The Guardian’s Luke Harding to have sketched out, months ago, a plausible scenario that makes sense of Trump’s attachment to Russian interests since the mid-1980s. It is to the credit of Jonathan Chait and New York magazine that they have amassed and narrated some of the evidence—and not even the part of it pertaining to Russian bail-outs of his fraud-filled real estate empire. If Trump is not fully an “asset,” in Chait’s sense, he is at the least what Lenin called a useful idiot. Tom Nichols, who teaches at the US Naval War College, writes lucidly that Chait’s piece “is fundamentally a damning tally of the degree to which the Russian state has woven itself into the life of the current commander in chief.” My own research suggests that Nichols is also correct to “consider Trump not as a ‘recruit,’ but as an investment.”

Is it not time to stop accepting garbage from Trump’s Republican sycophants and simply repeating it at face value? Is it not time to set out in cold type, regularly and extensively, the evidence that the cover-up artists ignore?

Here’s a tiny example, not immense by itself but indicative of how much even the Times still has to learn about the actual, corrupted world in which we’re living. Bipartisanship is supposed to be dead. This claim has become conventional wisdom. So why wasn’t it significant news—man-bites-dog news—when, on July 3, the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declared that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him”?

The panel is, after all, chaired by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr. On July 3, it put its imprimatur on the widely reported CIA-NSA-FBI finding (released in declassified form on January 6, 2017) called “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” Indeed, the Select Committee not only confirmed the earlier announcement, it strengthened it.

The 2017 three-agency conclusion was stark enough:

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign

in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

We have high confidence in these judgments.

But as was frequently noted in news reports, this assessment did disclose a certain disagreement in the confidence with which the three agencies put forward the final assessment that Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

ICYMI: Fox News reporter under fire after Trump press conference

Not surprisingly, Fox News tried to deepen the wedge between the CIA-FBI “high confidence” and NSA’s “moderate confidence.” The Wall Street Journal ran the subhed: “Report says CIA, FBI have ‘high confidence’ in Putin findings; NSA has ‘moderate confidence.’” In July 2017, Trump himself said only “three or four” of the US’s 17 intelligence agencies had agreed on Russian interference. This past July 3, Breitbart.com chortled about “Three Major Problems with Senate Intel Committee Report Affirming Russia Meddled to Get Trump Elected,” trumpeting Nunes’ House Committee report which, they said, found “no evidence that Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia.”

On July 8, the Washington Post editorial board called the “new bipartisan report. . . . important: It counters the bluster of the Trump camp with a dose of reality.” Unsurprisingly, Trump has taken to calling the Post a “lobbyist for Amazon.” CNN led by noting that the Senate Select Committee was “Breaking with their House Republican counterparts,” sharpening the point about how unusual the Senate Committee report is.

But as for the Times, it mentioned the Select Committee report only in passing, in the eighth paragraph of an inside-page piece on another subject—“Trip to Moscow by G.O.P. Senators Shows Bitterness of Relations.” (Online, perhaps backhandedly acknowledging a gaffe, the Times did run a brief Reuters dispatch.)

In May, to be sure, in a skimpy piece, the Times cited a statement of Senator Burr that he “saw ‘no reason to dispute’ the intelligence assessment,” along with a brief supporting statement by ranking Democrat Mark Warner. But now the Select Committee’s report is public, albeit in unclassified form. The interagency difference about degrees of confidence has been clarified. This would seem eminently newsworthy—especially in the light of Trump’s repeated insistence that he and his campaign are innocent of “anything to do with Russia.”

Now an honest-to-God bipartisan document emerges. A few days later, Trump with his usual inelegance, ducks a question in Helsinki from the AP’s Jonathan Lemire about Russian interference in American elections with one of his characteristic rants about—what else?—Hillary Clinton’s emails.

As our best journalists know, the First Amendment was not a guarantee for the right to tiptoe.

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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.