Q&A: Jared Yates Sexton on Donald Trump Jr.’s tweets

Photo credit: Danielle Debien

It was the tweet heard ’round the world. At 11 am today, Donald Trump Jr. took to Twitter to release emails confirming his meetings with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, aimed at getting dirt on the Clinton campaign. The tweets came moments before The New York Times published a piece about the contents of those same emails.

The internet exploded with tweetstorms. One of the best came from independent journalist Jared Yates Sexton. For the past year, Sexton has been chasing the Trump-Russia scandal. He shared his shock with followers, calling the story “the dumbest and biggest crime in the history of American politics.”

Sexton, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, the New Republic, and Salon, started investigating the Trump-Russia relationship at a time when others deemed it “paranoia” or a “conspiracy theory.” He was also one of the first journalists to report on the rage and raw anger present at Trump rallies on the campaign trail. That’s the focus of his upcoming book, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, which will be published in September by Counterpoint Press.

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Sexton spoke with CJR about his reporting on the Trump-Russia connection, today’s tweets, and what it all means moving forward. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

So, you’ve spent a year working on this story. What first turned you on to it? And how did you approach the reporting process?

When it originally started, it was back in July 2016, right around the time of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Of course, this was on the heels of the DNC hack and the emails being released. I had heard rumors that this was some sort of organized thing between the Trump campaign and Russia. I just followed up on sources, kept finding people who wouldn’t go on the record, kept finding people who were more than happy to give background information or lead to other sources. Again and again, it was just people who wouldn’t go on the record. They just wanted to remain anonymous and give background information. So I basically followed those leads for the last year, finding a lot that didn’t bear any fruit.

This entire time, I kept hoping I or somebody else would come across some sort of smoking gun, but I never expected the son of the president to just tweet it out on a Tuesday.

 

This entire time, I kept hoping I or somebody else would come across some sort of smoking gun, but I never expected the son of the president to just tweet it out on a Tuesday.

 

Essentially, you’ve been scooped by a source. Does that feel different from being beaten by a competing news outlet?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this; you’re actually the first person I’ve talked to about this out loud. When another journalist gets one of these stories, you tip your cap and you’re just like, “This is fantastic.” To be honest, I never really thought I would break something; this was more like a quixotic quest. And it was something to do because I felt like it was an important story. But to simply have the principal of the case release the documents without being subpoenaed or ordered by law, or under threat of perjury, or anything, to just have it released as if it wasn’t a big deal, it’s just one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.

What does something like this mean, moving forward?

What concerns me is that I’m already seeing a lot of people who are saying, “You know, this is nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re inflating this, this isn’t collusion.” There’s other people who are like, “Yeah it’s collusion, but who cares? Everybody does it,” or whatever. I think what it actually means is more evidence of something we already knew, which is: Realities are different now. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I actually think in the wake of this being released, we’re going to have more arguments about reality as opposed to evidence. I think that’s going to be a really tiring thing we go through the next few days.

 

Realities are different now. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I actually think in the wake of this being released, we’re going to have more arguments about reality as opposed to evidence.

 

How close were you to publishing before Trump Jr. tweeted the emails?

I was a ways off. This was a thing that felt like it was going to go on for the rest of the time Donald Trump was in office. I have a book coming out that touches on the beginnings of it, though. It was one of those things where you put in the calls, you get told no on stuff, and you just hope Bob Mueller finds something, or The New York Times or The Washington Post, who have done amazing things on this stuff. The investigation of this, especially when you’re not at a big house, it feels like a hobby. It feels like being a HAM Radio operator in your basement. It’s something I did for a year, and to just have it land in the lap of the American public is bizarre.

What’s the significance of this information being released on Twitter?

I did an article for The Daily Beast a couple of weeks ago [about how] Trump supporters were starting to bypass Fox News altogether, and they were actually getting their news directly from the president and his tweets. They started using his quotes, they started using his vernacular, and this ended up sort of being a revelation that they don’t really need Fox News anymore. They’ve got far, far, right websites basically distilling Trump’s own message from his tweets. What I actually think is happening here is they’re able to take this and shape it however they want, basically give their supporters and base the talking points to push whatever agenda they want from them. I think that’s one of the reasons this got released on Twitter.

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Would you say this was a strategic move by the Trump administration?

Man, the word strategy is a weird one to use in this case. Everyone is now less concerned about how we got here, and more about why he did this. On one hand, you have to use the word strategy. But this is not just clumsy; it’s the most unaware thing I think I’ve ever seen. I guess maybe they think there’s a strategy to get it out and shape the story before it gets too bad. But it almost feels like an impulsive move. It feels like maybe Trump Jr. is panicking and he had to put this stuff out.

What are you going to work on now?

The good news is I have a book I’ve got to write, so maybe I’ll stop procrastinating on that. But this thing is far from being over, and I think it’s going to be fascinating seeing the fallout from all of this, not just politically, but reality-wise.

 

The fact that it’s out on Twitter is not a coincidence. This is where it gets broken; this is where you shape opinions and focus a narrative.

 

“Fake news” was the tip of the iceberg. What we’re looking at is a shift in not just how we interact with each other but how we digest life and, in particular, how technology has augmented that. The fact that it’s out on Twitter is not a coincidence. This is where it gets broken; this is where you shape opinions and focus a narrative.

Where can people send you money for a beer?

People can have a beer on their own. I think they need it.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.