Dan Coats’s departure and the story of Russian meddling

Donald Trump demands loyalty, so Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, must have known that things would not end well for him. A little over a year ago, after the president said at a joint news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki that Russia had not tried to influence the 2016 election, Coats released a stern statement to the press: Russia had meddled in 2016, and continued to interfere with American democracy. Days later, in the middle of a live interview in Aspen, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell informed Coats that Trump had invited Putin to the White House. Coats leaned toward Mitchell with an incredulous look, then laughed for several seconds. “Okay,” he said. “That’s gonna be special.” In January, Coats contradicted Trump’s stated views on North Korea, Iran, and ISIS in testimony before the Senate; Trump replied on Twitter that “Intelligence should go back to school.” Coats, by that point, was already living on borrowed time. Yesterday, Trump confirmed that Coats is set to resign. He’ll vacate his post on August 15.

Trump chose someone more sycophantic as Coats’s successor: John Ratcliffe, a conservative Texas Congressman who talked to Trump about the role and, five days later, auditioned during  Robert Mueller’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. When it was Ratcliffe’s turn at the mic, he yelled that half of Mueller’s report contravened Justice Department guidelines forbidding “extra-prosecutorial commentary” and thus should never have been written. “Donald Trump is not above the law,” Ratcliffe said, “but he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where volume two of this report puts him.” To finish, he slapped the papers in front of him. According to Jonathan Swan, of Axios, the audience-of-one in the White House was “thrilled.”

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Yesterday, many outlets cited this performance in their stories about Trump picking Ratcliffe to replace Coats. It was proof, reporters said, that Ratcliffe intends to serve Trump as a loyalist. Different scenes from Wednesday’s Mueller hearings, however, might have been more pertinent to the duties Ratcliffe is slated to take on. Mueller stressed, in his opening remarks, that ongoing Russian interference in elections is “among the most serious” problems he has observed during his long career in law enforcement; later, he warned, “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” At one point, Mueller seemed to address the press, at least implicitly: his report’s conclusions about Russia’s meddling had been “underplayed to a certain extent,” he said.

Russian interference has clear consequences for the press: it involves information warfare, which muddies our attempts to tell citizens the truth, and Russia has succeeded in undermining public confidence in the information ecosystem. Yet after Mueller’s report was made public, most of the political press focused on the part about obstruction of justice—the question of Trump’s role in trying to curtail the investigation into Russian meddling—rather than the meddling itself. That was understandable—the obstruction component of Mueller’s inquiry contained some explosive new evidence. But even after Mueller’s testimony last week, which delivered no breaking news, chatter about opticsand speculation about Mueller’s health—dominated much of the coverage; the ongoing threat of Russian disinformation attacks got lost.

Russia’s efforts to troll our democracy derailed Trump’s relationship with Coats. As several stories put it yesterday, Coats was willing “to speak truth to power”; Ratcliffe may not be. As the president aims to move on from the story, it will be, as ever, the media’s job to pay urgent attention.

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Below, more on Coats, Ratcliffe, and Russian meddling:

  • Reality, TV: The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer argues that many political reporters have failed to heed Mueller’s warnings. “The mainstream press has internalized Trump’s own reality-show standards for what counts as a significant political development,” Serwer writes. “All the world is trashy television, and the president and his opposition are merely producers. After three seasons, Russiagate just got old, and the critics got bored with it.”
  • Politicization: Some lawmakers fear that Ratcliffe’s appointment as director would politicize intelligence agencies. His Senate confirmation is “anything but assured,” CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Jeremy Herb, and Manu Raju report. Yesterday, before the president announced the nomination, Ratcliffe gave a Trump-pleasing interview on Fox News. “What I do know, as a former federal prosecutor, is that it does appear that there were crimes committed during the Obama administration,” he said.
  • Devin Nunes’s cow: According to Politico’s Natasha Bertrand, Devin Nunes, the pro-Trump California Congressman who formerly chaired the House Intelligence Committee, was offered Coats’s job, but turned it down; Nunes instead told the president he would accept an intelligence post—CIA director, maybe, should Trump win reelection in 2020. Nunes has a history of press-bashing: this year alone, he sued his local paper, The Fresno Bee, and its parent company, McClatchy, as well as Twitter and two anonymous accounts, “Devin Nunes’s mom” and “Devin Nunes’s cow.”


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, at least four people were killed, including a six-year-old child and a suspect, at a mass shooting at a food festival in Gilroy, California. Late last night, police were still searching the area for a second suspect. The Mercury News, of nearby San Jose, has more.
  • This weekend, more racist tweets flew from the White House, sparked by a misleading segment on Fox News. Trump attacked Elijah Cummings, a senior Democratic Congressman, calling Cummings’s district—which is majority Black and includes parts of Baltimore—a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” The tweets drove intense discussion. “When [Trump] tweets about ‘infestation,’ it’s about Black and brown people,” Victor Blackwell, a CNN anchor who was born in Baltimore, said in an emotional segment. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace grilled Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, on the president’s “racial stereotyping”: “I’m not reading between the lines, I’m reading the lines,” Wallace said. The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board had sharp words for the president: “Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”
  • For Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt profiles Media Matters for America, a left-wing media-monitoring group that tracks the passage of talking points from Fox to the president’s Twitter feed, among other data points. Media Matters, Hiatt writes, has become Fox’s “worst nightmare.” Lis Power, its director, says: “You might disagree with our point of view, but you can’t disagree with our data.”
  • In January, Nicholas Sandmann, a MAGA hat-wearing high school student from Kentucky, was widely condemned after a viral video appeared to show Sandmann confronting a Native American elder in Washington, DC. Sandmann claimed that he was trying to defuse a tense situation, and sued outlets including the Post for libel. On Friday, a judge dismissed Sandmann’s suit against the Post on First Amendment grounds. Sandmann’s family also filed claims against CNN and NBC; both are still pending.
  • For CJR, Marisa Peryer spoke with Native Hawaiian activists, scholars, and scientists about flawed media coverage of the opposition to a telescope project on Mauna Kea volcano. “For years, coverage of Native Hawaiian resistance has portrayed the situation as a battle between science and religion, revealing the journalism field’s severely misguided understanding of Native Hawaiian perspectives,” Peryer writes.
  • Earlier this month, France’s Parliament approved a tax on tech giants—notably Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple—that do business in the country but have their headquarters elsewhere. The US government complained that American companies will be disproportionately affected; on Friday, Trump threatened to slap retaliatory tariffs on French wine. Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, said his government hopes to reach a deal with Trump before next month’s Group of Seven meeting in France.
  • For months, breaking up tech companies has been a key pledge of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Now, The Boston Globe’s Jess Bidgood reports, staffers at such companies are donating to Warren in droves. “I like working at Amazon. It’s been the best job of my career,” one staffer told Bidgood. “However, I don’t like the fact that our economy is dominated by gigantic super-corporations.”
  • According to The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin, Vice Media is in talks to buy Refinery29, a digital-media brand for young women. The deal may fall through, but if it goes ahead, it “would unite two of the largest venture-backed media companies in the US,” Mullin writes.
  • And with Boris Johnson now in post as prime minister of Britain, Emily Bell outlines, for The Guardian, what British journalists should learn from their American counterparts’ coverage of Trump. Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, advises of Johnson: “Don’t let him dictate the news cycle.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.