The Media Today

The potential Trump indictments, and what we take seriously

March 20, 2023
A video of President Donald Trump recording a statement on Jan. 7, 2021, is played, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

On Saturday morning, Donald Trump tweeted—sorry, “truthed”—that he will be arrested on Tuesday. Trump’s claim immediately blew up into a major story across the media landscape, feeding a slurry of push notifications, stories, commentary, and tweets. But it wasn’t clear what the claim—and, in particular, its specific date—was actually based on. A few hours later, a spokesperson for Trump said that he didn’t have any special knowledge of a Tuesday arrest; the New York Times subsequently reported that Trump may simply have been echoing guesswork on the part of his advisers. A lawyer for Trump later confirmed that the Tuesday claim was based on “press reports.” (“No one tells us anything which is very frustrating,” the lawyer added.) As microcosms of the broader Trump-press relationship go, it’s hard to think of one more exquisite than the media breathlessly amplifying a seemingly newsy and incendiary claim that Trump actually just gleaned from the media itself. But I’m open to other suggestions.

Reports of an imminent Trump indictment first surfaced ten days ago in the pages of the Times, under the headline “Prosecutors Signal Criminal Charges for Trump Are Likely,” with the “signal” in this case not being anything prosecutors said publicly, but the fact that they invited Trump to testify before a Manhattan grand jury that’s been investigating his role in the payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star, to cover up an affair in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. (It would be unusual, the Times reported, for prosecutors to invite Trump and not then charge him.) In recent days, reporters have closely tracked developments in the case, including a meeting between prosecutors and Daniels herself; some reporters have also been keeping track of Daniels’s tweets about the case, including one in which she speculated that Trump’s social-media typos might be down to “slippery fingers from lube and KFC” and another in which she did a better job than some members of the DC press corps in fact-checking Trump’s Tuesday-arrest claim. Meanwhile, the legal-pundit-industrial complex (remember them?) whirred into action once more. Some soberly explained, as did the Times’s initial story, that potential charges against Trump in the hush-money case would be complex and legally untested. Another questioned, on MSNBC, why “we’re starting with the stripper case.”

“Starting with” was a reference to other possible indictments of Trump that could come soon, and that have themselves been big news in recent weeks—perhaps none more so than a case in Fulton County, Georgia, where a special grand jury recently concluded an investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the state. The coverage of that case has focused not only on Trump and his associates but also on some unlikelier media characters, not least Emily Kohrs, the foreperson of the special grand jury. The Associated Press identified Kohrs using court records and requested an interview, which Kohrs granted; she also spoke with the Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN, among other outlets. Kohrs mostly offered behind-the-curtain insights into what the experience of the investigation was like; in one typical anecdote, she described swearing in a witness while holding a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ice pop. She also spoke to the number and type of indictments the special grand jury may have recommended (“It is not a short list”), without naming names. And, when asked about a Trump claim that the process had “totally exonerated” him, Kohrs replied, “Did he really say that? Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s phenomenal. I love it.”

Lawyers for Trump were quick to hit back, claiming that Kohrs’s “media tour” had undermined the integrity of the investigation and Trump’s due-process rights. Right-wing pundits amplified that general idea, decrying Kohrs’s interviews as “not how justice in America is supposed to work” (Sean Hannity), and Kohrs herself as “a woman who acted like a vapid immature high school teenager” (Gregg Jarrett) and “an actual witch” (Rod Dreher, pointing to some old online posts by Kohrs). Over on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker, the paper’s former editor in chief, loftily cast Kohrs as an avatar of “an age of unseriousness.” For good measure, he sneered at her employment status (she has described herself as being “between customer-service jobs”) and accused her of “giggly gallivanting,” “injudicious incontinence” and “verbal laxity” while “giddily skipping from television studio to newspaper office sharing the sober deliberations of a secret judicial process like a fluttery teenager dishing the dirt on the saucy goings-on at last night’s junior prom.”

So far, so predictable—but these voices weren’t alone in slamming Kohrs and her interviews, which attracted criticism right across the political and media spectrum, including among the aforementioned legal-pundit-industrial complex. On CNN, Elie Honig called them a “horrible idea”; on MSNBC, Barbara McQuade called them “reckless,” while a headline in New York magazine declared them “weird and risky.” Terry Moran, a senior national correspondent at ABC News, said that Kohrs had “beclowned” herself (“she looked like a fool, like, somebody looking for their fifteen minutes… this is no way to run a popsicle stand, much less a grand jury investigation of the former president of the United States”); on the same show, Donna Brazile, a former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Kohrs may have done her media round with a view to creating a GoFundMe to pay eventual legal fees. “Shouldn’t she be keeping her big bazoo shut?” Joy Behar said, on The View. “This girl, I mean, why is she going around talking? She wants attention. Everyone is a Kardashian now. Everybody wants attention. And that’s what this is about, I think. But I think that she could destroy this case.”

(It must be noted, here, that not every legal expert thinks that Kohrs has destroyed this case, with several pointing out that Georgia has looser grand-jury secrecy rules than apply at the federal level, and that Kohrs appears not to have stepped outside of them in her commentary. Joining them, apparently, in this assessment: the judge in the case itself, who seemed to suggest, in rare comments to ABC, that the whole media furor over Kohrs was misplaced.)

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Outside of the Manhattan and Fulton County cases, Trump is under investigation at the federal level, with Jack Smith, a special counsel, overseeing parallel probes into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. Both these stories, too, have attracted ample media attention of late and have their own casts of characters. Lately, a prominent one has been Mike Pence, who has so far refused, despite a subpoena, to testify before a grand jury in the election case. Last weekend, Pence did agree to appear at the Gridiron Dinner—a yuckier than yuck off-camera gathering of DC bigwigs, including journalists—and said (among other things, including a homophobic jab at Pete Buttigieg) that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for his role in the insurrection of January 6. As Politico’s Michael Schaffer noted last week, Pence’s speech got a rapturous ovation from the white-tie crowd in the room. On the outside, it drove a mini news cycle. Yesterday, Pence sat for an interview on ABC and was asked to elaborate on what he meant by his historical reference. “It will be the judgment of history,” Pence said. “I truly believe it.”

The cases facing Trump are different in their particulars, and it’s legitimate to question and scrutinize the specifics of the charges that he might face, how they might stand up in court, and the political context around them. It’s legitimate, too, to compare them. What is less legitimate—or, to borrow a term from Baker, unserious—is for members of the media to dismiss any of them as a trivial matter because they feel that the stakes are higher in one of the other cases. The claim that Trump paid off Daniels in possible violation of fraud and campaign-finance laws does not deserve flippant treatment because it only involves a stripper, and not the storming of the US Capitol. As I’ve written many times, Trump has, perversely, often benefited from the low expectations many members of the media set for him. Each case against Trump is a big deal in its own right and deserves sober coverage of its merits.

If there is a problem of what we take seriously when it comes to Trump, there is also a problem of who we take seriously. Comparing the coverage afforded to the different characters in these three cases—Daniels, and to a greater extent Kohrs and Pence—reveals it. Despite the claims of her attention-hoggery, it would appear that Kohrs, at least initially, did not seek out the limelight; nor did she seem to break any actual rules, and she certainly did not deserve to have a shower of sexist and classist bile poured down on her head. While Kohrs has been ridiculed as a silly little girl for talking to the media, Pence has been, if not lionized, then at least treated like an adult in the room for stating an anodyne observation about Trump in a setting that suited him. Pence has received media scrutiny for dodging his grand-jury subpoena; plenty of it. He also gets to go on television and claim, without much pushback, that America has a “two-tiered justice system” that is stacked against a former president. Talk about unserious.

Any indictment of Trump would be the first ever handed down against a former president; the prospect has driven media chatter for years, and the possibility that an arrest may be imminent has, understandably, supercharged it. As always with stories that get a lot of attention, some of this chatter has been insightful, dissecting the various investigations Trump faces and what they might mean legally, politically, socially, and historically. (It will, after all, be the judgment of history.) And, as always, we’ve also seen a lot of nonsense, from American-exceptionalist pearl-clutching about indicting former presidents not being the sort of thing we do here to shallow political punditry musing that, actually, an indictment might be good for Trump. On ABC yesterday, one voice of reason countered that “being indicted never helps anybody.” That this came from Chris Christie—a man who knows a bit about high-profile indictments, and whose political interests (he’s weighing a bid for president) would be served by an indictment not being good for Trump—probably says as much as anything else about our political and media climate.

One thing that is certainly good for Trump is media coverage that amplifies his unevidenced talking points, be they demeaning a special grand juror or announcing his imminent arrest. In the latter post over the weekend, Trump also called on supporters to “TAKE OUR NATION BACK,” an “unmistakable echo,” as the Times put it, of his incendiary tweets in the run-up to January 6, and which also, for better or for worse, was amplified across the media landscape. In this contextual sense, at least, the hush-money and election probes Trump faces are connected, even if the immediate legal stakes differ. After last time, we should probably take it seriously.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday saw the debut of a new show on MSNBC hosted by Jen Psaki, Biden’s first White House press secretary. Psaki majored on the Trump-arrest story and her show did not feature much criticism of the Biden administration, Deadline’s Ted Johnson writes. An interview with Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, was largely “friendly territory” for Jeffries, Johnson writes, though Psaki’s questions were not “superficial.”
  • The Journal’s Alexandra Bruell reports on “intensifying” tensions over labor at the Times, where bosses have accused the paper’s union of slow-walking talks on a new contract, and unionized staffers have pushed back, including in an internal messaging forum, by pointing to bosses’ high pay packets. Union members are themselves split over how to proceed, with some favoring the appointment of a mediator and others wanting a strike.
  • For Air Mail, Brian Stelter profiled David Sirota, a former adviser to Bernie Sanders whose news site, The Lever, “has been ahead of the media pack on several recent stories,” including the train derailment in Ohio and the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. “I think that the economic class war is the most important war going on in America,” Sirota told Stelter. “I think that by and large the culture war is a deliberate distraction from that.”
  • The Washington Post’s Katherine Ellison spoke with Mary Louise Kelly, of NPR, about her experience of hearing loss, a subject that Kelly broaches in a new memoir. “When I’m anchoring, I never have trouble, because the NPR studio is soundproof—there’s no background noise to distract you, and I wear great headphones that I can crank loud,” Kelly said. “It’s harder when I do interviews from home or when I’m out in the field.”
  • And Peter Baker, of the Times, landed a four-decade-old scoop after Ben Barnes, a one-time Texas politician, reached out to the paper to confess that he participated (unwittingly, he says) in an effort to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 reelection bid by trying to convince Iran that it should wait for a new administration before resolving the US hostage crisis. Barnes told Baker that he wanted to break his silence about the effort following the recent news that Carter had entered hospice care at the age of ninety-eight. Confirming Barnes’s account is “problematic after so much time” since many of the central players “have long since died and Mr. Barnes has no diaries or memos to corroborate his account,” Baker writes—but Barnes “has no obvious reason to make up the story,” and friends of Barnes’s confirmed that they’d heard it before.

ICYMI: Bank failures are not campaign events

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.