I sat down to write this in the wake of CNN’s gigantic screw-up—one that’s far larger than what ABC got wrong about the Michael Flynn indictment—and as if the universe were trying to confirm my hypothesis, just as I began to type, The New York Times reported that the FBI met with Hope Hicks to warn her about “repeated attempts by Russian operatives to make contact with her during the presidential transition.” The Times immediately makes clear that “there is no evidence that Ms. Hicks did anything improper” and that “the contents of the emails to Ms. Hicks are unclear, as are the identities of the Russians who sent them.” So basically, the FBI met with a high-level administration official about a foreign influence operation and we don’t really know anything else about that meeting. Sounds like a normal day at the White House to me, but not in the “BREAKING BOMBSHELL” world.
I get that these Russians we don’t know about could wind up being more important down the road, and that’s why this story may be more significant than at first glance—but other than that, reporting that Hope Hicks met with Mueller is really the only meaty part of the report. Most of this new story is simply just summarizing the Trump-Russia reporting up to this point. This is how a big chunk of the news reads on Trump-Russia—take it from someone who considers it their job to read every single one of these reports. They all get repetitive. Not just the Times, everyone (quick note: the Times didn’t promote the above story as some big bombshell, I brought it up because of its timing and how it’s reflective of how other outlets downstream of the Times interpret this barrage of reports as more significant than they are—as you will see at the end of this column).
So back to CNN, the real target of my ire here. They reported an absolute bombshell which redefined the narrative in the Trump-Wikileaks portion of this saga. But before we get to the bombshell, let’s begin with CNN’s correction:
Correction: This story has been corrected to say the date of the email was September 14, 2016, not September 4, 2016. The story also changed the headline and removed a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., who posted a message about WikiLeaks on September 4, 2016.
A date seems like a relatively insignificant miss, but the date was the most damning part of the story. The Washington Post forced this correction by obtaining the e-mail in question, which proved the date to be the 14th. The story that is wholly dependent on this date? Per CNN:
Candidate Donald Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr. and others in the Trump Organization received an email in September 2016 offering a decryption key and website address for hacked WikiLeaks documents, according to an email provided to congressional investigators.
The September 14 email was sent during the final stretch of the 2016 presidential race.
CNN originally reported the email was released September 4 — 10 days earlier — based on accounts from two sources who had seen the email. The new details appear to show that the sender was relying on publicly available information. The new information indicates that the communication is less significant than CNN initially reported.
Less significant is one hell of an understatement. If the Trump camp received these decryption keys prior to it being released publicly (which is what CNN initially reported), then if they used them (which CNN did not report), that would literally be a smoking gun. By changing the date to after it was publicly released, the story basically turned into “someone sent them an e-mail.” Frankly, I’m not really sure why this report is still even on CNN’s website, given that it includes this sentence: “congressional investigators were trying to ascertain whether the individual who sent the September email is legitimate.”
Well, I know why it’s still up, but that’s because I’m playing the same game.
We cover the Trump-Russia story a lot here at Paste. Roger Sollenberger and I have become fascinated by what we believe to be a clear pattern of intent to collude with Russia by the Trump camp (collusion does not have a certain legal definition by the way, that’s another bad habit us media types have formed). We could not write our summaries/theories without compiling the information that other people at outlets like the NYT and CNN are reporting. We maintain a healthy skepticism of how deep the rot goes in this saga, but given that Donald Trump Jr. published his “I love crime with the Crown Prosecutor of Russia!” e-mails, we’re convinced that something nefarious happened. These are craven, stupid, ambitious people, and the United States has the most powerful spying apparatus in the history of mankind. If something craven, stupid, ambitious and criminal took place between a bunch of doofuses and a country that has been messing with our democracy for the better part of a century, we likely caught it.
Which is why Robert Mueller was brought in. We caught a lot of stuff off these idiots from 2016 to now, and we need to figure out if any of it leads to something larger than just extreme idiocy. The Department of Justice would not have felt compelled to appoint an independent counsel that so very clearly runs contrary to what their boss wants unless there was something worth drilling down into. The problem we’re running in to is threefold:
1. There is a lot of information flying around about an investigation that we don’t know much about.
2. Which means that: odds are most of these stories are not important to the overall narrative.
3. This Trump-Russia stuff feels like how the media covers the drumbeats of war.
It’s difficult for outlets like us to analyze the Trump-Russia news as the screw-ups pile up, as we can only ascertain after the fact whether some of these stories are bunk, which has began to reduce our certainty as we summarize these new “bombshells.” For example, see my hedged summary from last week on the now-corrected story about Muller subpoenaing the finances of people or entities around Trump. I guarantee you that if I had written that column earlier this year, my tone would be far more certain. I’ve been burned enough where I’m forced to be more cautious because—save for a handful of folks—no one in this country really knows what’s going on with this investigation.
I get the mindset of the reporters tasked to dig in to what really happened here. What has convinced me about the validity of this story from the start has nothing to do with what has been reported by the media or our government. What assures me of the Trump camp’s guilt of some kind of crime has been the Trump camp’s reaction to that reporting. Jeff Sessions was a sitting Senator and a ranking member on a presidential campaign. He can meet with whomever he damn well pleases and cop to it, so why would he keep lying about stuff that he doesn’t need to lie about? Same goes for Michael Flynn. And Jared Kushner. And Donald Trump Jr. And Donald Trump. They’ve all been caught lying about contacts that they do not need to lie about with Russian spheres of influence, so the question naturally becomes: why?
And that’s an intriguing story to chase. Hell, I did that with my 22,000 word deep dive back in March. But that’s the story that Robert Mueller is digging in to. The story that journalists should be digging in to, per the rules of journalism based on what we know as of right now, is the very clear fact that the President of the United States is at serious risk of being charged with obstruction of justice. He basically confessed to it on NBC News after firing James Comey—proving that he had the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General draw up a phony legal recommendation to serve as cover for firing the former FBI Director. Senators have gone on the record to tell the Times that Trump asked them to squash their Russia investigation. The former FBI Director wrote in a note that Trump asked if he could see to “letting [his National Security Adviser] go.” This is some serious stuff. I get the impulse to dig into the “why” of the obstruction of justice equation, but there is a lot of meat on the bones of “who,” “what,” “where” and “how.”
The major “why” scoops will largely be unearthed by Robert Mueller or Congress, and they’ll happen when they happen. The problem seems to be that the media is forcing this “breaking news” down our throats, when all the new information within it can be conveyed in a tweet. As someone who understands the need to generate clicks, I can see where the financial people at places like the NYT and CNN are coming from, especially since they know that (at least) the entire nightly MSNBC block will devote a significant portion of their coverage to anything with the words Trump and Russia in it—no matter how mundane the details—like the Hope Hicks story at the top of this column that got a spot in ABC World News Tonight’s Friday intro as “breaking news involving President Trump and one of his closest advisors, Hope Hicks. What the FBI warned her about the Russians” (that story only involves President Trump insofar as it involves Hope Hicks—well, that or it involves him because you’re presuming his guilt in the larger Russian narrative).
This is a problem that I have alluded to before, but the intersection of capitalism and journalism is as compatible as oil and water. At a certain point, chasing clicks for capitalism hurts your journalistic credibility, which takes far longer to repair than a balance sheet.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.