Mark Meadows, the signal, and the noise

Last Tuesday, we learned that Mark Meadows, who served as chief of staff in the waning days of the Trump White House, had agreed to cooperate with the congressional committee probing the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Meadows—who worked to try to overturn Trump’s election defeat and was by his side while the Capitol was attacked—had initially refused to cooperate with the probe, citing Trump’s (dubious) claims of executive privilege, then U-turned after the committee started to pursue contempt charges against recalcitrant witnesses. He turned over documents and agreed to sit for a deposition. Big questions remained, however, as to how meaningful Meadows’s cooperation would be. He continued to cite executive privilege.

Throughout the day, reporters and pundits seemed to disagree with each other—and themselves—as to how big a deal the agreement actually was. CNN’s story that broke the news called it “a critical shift” that also “could be fragile.” On the network’s air, Alisyn Camerota called it “a big development” while Paula Reid called it “a really significant development” but also noted that “there’s a big question about what exactly will happen”; later, Anderson Cooper sounded notes of skepticism about its significance before asking John Dean, the star Watergate witness, whether there are “any circumstances under which you see Mark Meadows being a John Dean level bombshell witness for this committee?” (John Dean said he thought Mark Meadows would be a Mark Meadows, not a John Dean.) Over on MSNBC, Brian Williams said that Meadows had given the committee “a great headline,” before quipping that of the six thousand emails Meadows already handed over, “three thousand could be from Wayfair.” The New York Times called Meadows’s move “a notable reversal for a crucial witness” before noting its “strict limits.” The development, Politico’s DC Playbook newsletter judged, “shows that the Jan. 6 panel’s aggressive tactics are working, plain and simple,” but also that “no one seems to expect that Meadows is going to show up and spill the beans about what exactly happened on Jan. 6,” adding that a fight over executive privilege could soon “send us right back to Square One.”

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Yesterday, Meadows suspended his cooperation with the committee, on the grounds that it was failing to respect executive privilege. (He says he may answer written questions.) He was slated to be deposed today; the committee has threatened to pursue contempt charges. “Last week, we and many others predicted that Mark Meadows’s offer to ‘cooperate’ with the Jan. 6 select committee would fall through, putting the panel back at Square One,” Playbook wrote. “That prediction proved right.” The Times reported that “Meadows’s reversal was the second in two weeks.” On MSNBC, Williams called the news “less than surprising.” On CNN, Camerota said it was a “major reversal” and a “major development,” while Reid called it “a significant blow” for the committee. (I’m still awaiting John Dean’s take; someone let me know if I missed it.)

Lawmakers on the committee have been quick to point out that Meadows is claiming executive privilege around his experience in the White House while at the same time shopping a book about his experience in the White House. (It came out yesterday; as of last night, it was in 1,436th place on Amazon’s book chart.) The book has made headlines for its revelations about an episode separate from the insurrection—Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 last fall. Last Tuesday, just as Meadows was agreeing to cooperate with the committee, Martin Pengelly, a reporter at The Guardian, obtained a copy of the book; the next day, he broke the news that, per Meadows, Trump tested positive for COVID nearly a week before informing the public of a positive test. (Meadows writes that Trump tested negative after the first positive test, but also says that Trump showed symptoms of mild illness and that he told officials in Trump’s orbit to treat the president as if he had COVID.) In the interim, Trump attended a presidential debate with Joe Biden, at least two press briefings, and various other events. On the day of his first positive test, he traveled for a rally and spoke maskless with reporters on board Air Force One. One journalist present, Michael D. Shear, of the Times, tested positive for COVID soon after, as did two other members of the White House press corps.

It’s long been suspected that Trump may already have known he had COVID at the debate with Biden—the moderator, Fox’s Chris Wallace, said afterward that Trump had shown up too late to get tested—so it’s no surprise that Meadows’s acknowledgment blew up as a big story. Maggie Haberman, of the Times, quickly confirmed Trump’s early positive test with two other officials from his administration; over the weekend, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey, of the Washington Post, published a detailed reconstruction of Trump’s movements that week, concluding that between his first positive test and his eventual hospitalization with COVID, he came into contact with more than five hundred people, not including attendees at his rally. (Trump called the reporting based on Meadows’s book “fake news”; Meadows went on the right-wing network Newsmax and agreed. “If you actually read the book—the context of it—that story outlined a false positive,” he claimed, contradicting what the book says.) In the days since, other stories from the book have dripped out. According to Haberman and Noah Weiland, Meadows writes that Trump was sicker than officials publicly disclosed at the time. We already knew that they lied—Meadows was literally caught on camera trying to offer more a honest assessment off the record, before going on the record and contradicting himself. Still, the confirmation seemed to irk Haberman. “In an interesting move, Meadows seems to suggest they had to mislead the public because the media might write stories saying Trump was in even worse health,” she wrote on Twitter.

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As I’ve argued before, news cycles driven by a book about the Trump administration can be tedious: often, a reporter will exclusively obtain a book written by a Trump official or another reporter and then cover its details as urgent news, even if those details aren’t particularly new or urgent or interesting; this then tends to drive frenzied, somewhat nostalgic cable-news chatter about how awful Trump was that doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of his presidency. (This is not to say that such details aren’t useful for the historical record, but the demands of the news are more immediate.) We’ve seen some of these dynamics play out around Meadows’s book, and its effect on his standing in Trumpworld. Still, newsworthiness is the ultimate standard here—and Meadows’s accounting of Trump’s experience with COVID is clearly newsworthy. As I’ve written before, Trump committed many of his worst sins in full public view, raising the bar, in my view, for reporting on his private conduct. His unreported positive COVID test is an example to the contrary—we didn’t know about it before, it’s undoubtedly interesting, and while it’s not as urgent to know about it now as it would have been when Trump was president, Trump obviously remains a big character in public life. A longstanding issue in Trump coverage has been separating true significance from angry noise. The positive-test story looks like a signal.

Which brings us back to Meadows and the committee. It’s not inherently a contradiction for a development to be both significant and still tenuous. But—given what we know about Meadows’s character, and what he told us about executive privilege—it’s not clear to me that his professed cooperation was particularly significant without knowing what it would look like. That’s not to say that his brief interactions with the committee weren’t significant at all—he already handed over documents which, if Meadows’s approach to his book is anything to go by, could be incriminating without him necessarily intending them to be. Indeed, CNN reported yesterday that committee members already view some of the communications that he shared as relevant to their probe. But many of them could still be from Wayfair; again, we just don’t know yet. The work of reporting out what happened on January 6 will continue, committee or none.

Below, more on the Meadows book and politics:

  • Newsy nuggets: News organizations have pursued stories about other claims from Meadows’s book that vary in their significance: Trump threatened to wipe out a Taliban negotiator’s hometown; Trump “strongly considered” withdrawing his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court because he was “put off” by Kavanaugh’s assertion that he “liked beer”; Trump pushed a red button on his desk, leading Meadows to brace for “whatever sonic boom, breaking glass, or cloud of smoke I assumed was coming,” before discovering that Trump had merely ordered a Diet Coke. Meadows also writes that he banned members of his family from making facial expressions—or even blinking—in the audience during Trump’s first debate with Biden, because he feared cameras would catch them and the media would pounce.
  • The books beat: The Post’s Paul Farhi profiled Pengelly, of The Guardian, who scooped a number of high-profile books—including titles by Michael Wolff, James Comey, and Stormy Daniels—even before getting hold of Meadows’s. Pengelly “somehow manages to get a contraband copy of each book first—and beat the world in spilling the most consequential and interesting details,” Farhi writes. “His work has caused consternation in publishing circles because it preempts the carefully managed publicity campaigns surrounding high-profile book releases. His stories tend ‘to blow up [publishers’] rollout plans,’ said one frustrated but admiring Trump book author.”
  • “Complete crap”: Late last week, Dana Milbank, a columnist at the Post, published an article claiming that “the media treats Biden as badly as—or worse than—Trump” and citing as proof a “sentiment analysis” he commissioned that claimed to “measure the negativity with precision” across more than two hundred thousand articles. Milbank’s column was widely discussed—including at the White House—but his claims have also drawn criticism. On Monday, Nate Silver, of the data site FiveThirtyEight, called its sentiment analysis “complete crap.” He added, “designing good algorithms is hard, but this is an especially bad one. And as a news consumer, you should be extremely wary of statistical methodologies you don’t understand but that confirm your priors.”
  • Quayle’s eggs-ample: Mark Z. Barabak, a columnist at the LA Times, assessed the wave of recent negative media coverage about Vice President Kamala Harris and situated it in the context of coverage of vice presidents past. Dan Quayle, who served as vice president to George H.W. Bush, “spent much of his four years in the White House as the rep-tied, apple-cheeked butt of countless jokes, from which his reputation never recovered,” Barabak writes. “I remember one particular visit, a domestic trip to Rochester,” David Beckwith, who was Quayle’s vice presidential press secretary, told Barabak. “The headline of the paper was, ‘Quayle fails to make gaffe.’”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, center, arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the first day of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial in the Senate, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2021 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)