The importance of avoiding Mueller speculation

Last week, reporters were on tenterhooks as Robert Mueller prepared to show his hand again. Impending court deadlines promised potentially explosive new information on three characters central to his investigation—Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort. The Flynn filing dropped on Tuesday but its heavy redactions made it feel anticlimactic, and so the waiting game continued. Finally, on Friday afternoon, bombshells dropped. In separate filings from Mueller’s team and the Southern District of New York, prosecutors concurred with Cohen’s testimony that Donald Trump directed him to buy the silence of two women, and laid out Trump’s knowledge of contacts with Russia during his campaign, which included talks about a Trump Tower Moscow project.

Many in the media saw the filings as a vindication of months of aggressive reporting—and proof that the net is finally closing around Trump. Prosecutors, we were told, had directly implicated the president in a felony. On cable news, politicians were asked about impeachment. “It is no longer journalistically sound to report on the Trump investigation as if it is a matter that may, or may not, yield damning information about the President,” Adam Davidson wrote in The New Yorker. “The only remaining question is how bad does the actual worst case scenario get?” Wired’s Garrett M. Graff asked.

ICYMI: Media plays into Trump’s narrative on migrant caravan

While the filings were important, the breathlessness of the news cycle obscured continued uncertainty about how much Mueller knows, and what is likely to happen next. While most stories acknowledged this uncertainty somewhere, the weekend’s most useful articles put it front and center. In The New York Times, for instance, Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos summarized the legal and political question marks over Trump’s direction of the hush money payments. While the payments might appear to be clear violations of campaign finance laws, it’s not clear that Trump can be indicted while in office (in any case, according to Politico, prosecutors would likely need to prove that Trump knew he was committing a crime). That would put the ball in Congress’s court—and over the weekend, even hostile politicians punted on impeachment talk. The payments “would be impeachable offenses,” Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat who’ll chair the House Judiciary Committee from January, told CNN, but “whether they’re important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”

It’s a reporter’s job to build accurate, yet compelling narratives around important stories. That’s hard to do with the Mueller probe and its similar investigations, which are still chasing leads across a range of different fronts without publicizing much of their work on any of them. The discipline of Mueller’s team has increased the media’s reliance on the official narrative it’s building—rather than leak information haphazardly, prosecutors have effectively used court filings as detailed press releases. And some of the language related to the investigations has had an almost journalistic quality: last week, SDNY prosecutors wrote that “While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.”

The latest round of filings was unquestionably bad for Trump. But the narrative many outlets extrapolated from it—that the investigations are now in the end zone, with a big reveal imminent—is, ultimately, speculation. Instead, the press should stick carefully to what it knows for sure about the probes. “The thing that really struck me about the coverage this weekend was, ‘It’s the end, it’s the beginning of the end,’” Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik said on CNN yesterday. “I would just urge caution… Now more than ever we have to really not get out in front of our skis.”

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Below, more from the latest investigations news cycle:

  • No let-up: New reporting moved the story further forward over the weekend. Carl Bernstein, a master at sticking to the facts, said on CNN that a principal witness in Mueller’s probe told him “they know everything about Russia.” The Times’s Ben Protess, William K. Rashbaum, and Maggie Haberman report that SDNY prosecutors are shifting their focus away from Cohen and toward executives at the Trump Organization. And in The Washington Post, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, and Carol D. Leonnig write that Russia contacted at least 14 Trump associates during his campaign and presidential transition.
  • Catch and kill: The court filing related to the hush money payments directly implicated “Chairman 1”—a media figure who plotted with Trump to bury embarrassing stories about his private life. “Chairman 1” is David Pecker of the National Enquirer, the Post reports.
  • “Shrugged shoulders”: The Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report that the administration plans to adopt a “shrugged shoulders” strategy to combat Mueller’s findings—“calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.”
  • Kelly out, ? in: With Chief of Staff John Kelly finally quitting the White House, Trump’s plans to replace him were thrown into turmoil yesterday when his favored candidate, Nick Ayers, dropped out of the running. Whoever does replace Kelly will likely give Trump greater latitude to express himself as his re-election bid approaches. Axios’s Jonathan Swan scooped yesterday that Mark Meadows, the North Carolina congressman who chairs the uber-conservative House Freedom Caucus, is in the running.


Other notable stories:

  • “I can’t breathe.” Those were the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi’s final words before he was murdered and audibly hacked apart with a bone saw, a source who has seen a transcript of the incident told CNN’s Nic Robertson. Over the weekend, the Times uncovered just how close a relationship Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated with Jared Kushner, who reportedly became MBS’s “most important defender” in the White House after MBS was accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing. And the AP reports that Sean Penn is in Turkey working on a documentary about Khashoggi.
  • The Post’s Paul Farhi reports on rising resentment among NPR’s “army of temps,” who make up about one-fifth of the broadcaster’s union-covered newsroom staff—an unusually high rate for the industry. While NPR denies using them to cut costs, “temporary employees are paid only when they work, and they work only when managers decide,” Farhi writes.
  • To mark the release of Divide and Conquer, a new documentary about Roger Ailes, J. Max Robins remembers the challenges of covering the late Fox News boss in a piece for CJR. “The Ailes I knew could be an incredibly insightful, charming, and profanely funny man who would easily turn into a vindictive, paranoid, bulging-eyed bully the minute a story was posted he didn’t like,” Robins writes. “I was hardly the only person who’d come to understand that, no matter how ‘fair and balanced’ you were in your coverage of Fox News, if Roger Ailes and his cohorts didn’t like it, they came after you.”
  • As the Federal Communications Commission wound up to repeal net neutrality rules last year, millions of fake comments—under real people’s names—were posted to the FCC’s website in support of the change. As BuzzFeed’s Kevin Collier and Jeremy Singer-Vine report, the FBI is now investigating whether those comments were criminal, adding to an existing probe under the aegis of the New York attorney general’s office.
  • For the Times, Robert Y. Pledge writes on the troubling disappearance of his friend, Lu Guang, an award-winning Chinese photojournalist whose images “have shown the world China’s dark side.” Lu Guang, who lives in New York as a permanent US resident, was reportedly detained five weeks ago by state security services in Xinjiang province.
  • And last week, The Cut removed a heavily criticized piece calling Priyanka Chopra a “scam artist” following her marriage to Nick Jonas. After Mariah Smith, the freelance contributor who wrote the piece, apologized, The Cut tweeted to “reiterate that we take responsibility” for publication, and to apologize for letting Smith down.

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the Special Counsel’s office and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York submitted separate filings.

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