Why the Russia Story Is a Minefield for Democrats and the Media
Russia scandals have bloodied the Trump administration. But it carries dangers for those reporting it
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared on Meet the Press this past weekend to discuss the Trump-Russia scandal. Chuck Todd asked: Were there improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?
JAMES CLAPPER: We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, "our," that's N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that…
CHUCK TODD: I understand that. But does it exist?
JAMES CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.
Todd pressed him to elaborate.
CHUCK TODD: If [evidence of collusion] existed, it would have been in this report?
JAMES CLAPPER: This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government.
This is the former Director of National Intelligence telling all of us that as of 12:01 a.m. on January 20th, when he left government, the intelligence agencies had no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and the government of Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Virtually all of the explosive breaking news stories on the Trump-Russia front dating back months contain some version of this same disclaimer.
There is a lot of smoke in the Russia story. The most damning item is General Michael Flynn having improper discussions with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak prior to taking office. There is the much-discussed Republican platform change with regard to American assistance to Ukranian rebels, and the unreported contacts between officials like Jeff Sessions (and even Trump himself now) with Kislyak.
Moreover, the case that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee now appears fairly solid. Even Donald Trump thinks so. This of course makes it harder to dismiss stories like the one in which former Trump adviser Roger Stone appeared to know that Wikileaks was about to release the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta.
But the manner in which these stories are being reported is becoming a story in its own right. Russia has become an obsession, cultural shorthand for a vast range of suspicions about Donald Trump.
The notion that the president is either an agent or a useful idiot of the Russian state is so freely accepted in some quarters that Beck Bennett's shirtless representation of Putin palling with Alec Baldwin's Trump is already a no-questions-asked yuks routine for the urban smart set.
And yet, this is an extraordinarily complex tale that derives much of its power from suppositions and assumptions.
If there's any truth to the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian state to disrupt the electoral process, then yes, what we're seeing now are the early outlines of a Watergate-style scandal that could topple a presidency.
But it could also be true that both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come.
We have to remember that the unpopularity of the press was a key to Trump's election. Journalists helped solve the billionaire's accessibility problem by being a more hated group than the arrogant rich. Trump has people believing he shares a common enemy with them: the news media. When we do badly, he does well.
Trump calls us "enemies of the people" who purvey "fake news." Together with what vile ex-CNN turncoat Lou Dobbs calls the "global corporatists" who own the major media companies, we are said to comprise the "opposition party."
We can't afford to bolster these accusations of establishment bias and overreach by using the techniques of conspiracy theorists to push this Russia story. Unfortunately, that is happening.
One could list the more ridiculous examples, like the Washington Post'sinfamous "PropOrNot" story identifying hundreds of alternative media sites as fellow travellers aiding Russia, or the Post'sfaceplant over a report about a hacked utility in Vermont.
There was the "Russian cybercrime arrests" story that multiple outlets incorrectly suggested was linked to last year's election, or the bizarre series of stories about Russia-linked murders around the world that are supposedly connected to this tale. (Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept noted the similarity between these latter tales and early anti-Clinton paranoia).
All of this noise matters. The pop culture realm is filled with bits like the SNL "Santa Putin" routine, the New Yorker'sCyrillic cover and the promiscuous use of terms like "Siberian Candidate." Even the new DNC chief, Tom Perez, got in the act with a tweet about a Trump's weekly address:
Translated from the original Russian and everything. https://t.co/dPey5ZAaOG— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) March 3, 2017
Add all this to fringe-Internet reports about mysterious murders, and soon audiences come to every Russia story with pre-stoked expectations. Those expectations are what allow a paper to turn what may be a page nine story into a front-page sensation.
Setting all of that aside, look at the techniques involved within the more "legitimate" reports. Many are framed in terms of what they mightmean, should other information surface.
There are inevitably uses of phrases like "so far," "to date" and "as yet." These make visible the outline of a future story that isn't currently reportable, further heightening expectations.
Take the Times story about Trump surrogates having "repeated contacts" with Russian intelligence officials (an assertion that can mean anything, incidentally – as a reporter in Russia I had contact with Russian intelligence officials, as did most of my colleagues and friends in business, and there was nothing newsworthy about those interactions).
That story not only didn't explain whether the contacts were knowing or unknowing, it also brought up a host of other "dots" in the Russia narrative for the reader to connect. For instance, the Times mentioned the bizarre (and unverified) dossier prepared by Christopher Steele.
Whether the Steele material was in any way connected to the contacts to which the Times referred was unclear, but the paper plowed ahead, writing (emphasis mine):
"The dossier contained a raft of allegations ... unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump. ... The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims..."
These constructions are an end run around the paper's own reporting standards. The Times by itself could never have run that "explosive" Steele dossier, or mentioned the "embarrassing videos" – because the dossier material can't be confirmed.
But since it's all out there in the ether now, thanks to Buzzfeed, it apparently can safely be mentioned. Worse, the Times recounted all this in connection with the other story about alleged contacts with Russian intelligence, adding to the appearance of gravity and salaciousness.
Similarly, Democrats in congress have been littering their Russia speeches with caveats like, "We do not know all the facts," and, "More information may well surface." They repeatedly refer to what they don't know as a way of talking about what they hope to find out.
Members demand that Trump release his tax returns, for instance, so that Democrats can "clarify the specific financial interests that he has in Russia" – as if it is a given that he has such interests, or that such interests will be meaningful.
But what if there is nothing else to find?
Reporters should always be nervous when intelligence sources sell them stories. Spooks don't normally need the press. Their usual audiences are other agency heads, and the executive. They can bring about action just by convincing other people within the government to take it.
In the extant case, whether the investigation involved a potential Logan Act violation, or election fraud, or whatever, the CIA, FBI, and NSA had the ability to act both before and after Donald Trump was elected. But they didn't, and we know why, because James Clapper just told us – they didn't have evidence to go on.
Thus we are now witnessing the extremely unusual development of intelligence sources that normally wouldn't tell a reporter the time of day litigating a matter of supreme importance in the media. What does this mean?
Hypothesize for a moment that the "scandal" here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump's surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it's easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.
If that's the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.
The press has to cover this subject. But it can't do it with glibness and excitement, laughing along to SNL routines, before it knows for sure what it's dealing with. Reporters should be scared to their marrow by this story. This is a high-wire act and it is a very long way down. We might want to leave the jokes and the nicknames be, until we get to the other side – wherever that is.