The Real Russia Scandal Is Hiding in Plain Sight. Yet Trump May Get Away With It.
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Earlier this week, I wrote a piece, “Donald Trump Is Getting Away With the Biggest Scandal in American History,” that struck a chord with a lot of people. And I’ve been thinking a lot about where we go from here, because demonstrating that Trump is “getting away” with this is important but still frustrating.
Here’s the gist of what I wrote. The Trump-Russia scandal has become something of a mud-wrestling match, with the president’s partisans refusing to acknowledge the fundamental facts of this episode and distracting public attention from the key facts about which there truly isn’t any doubt: Trump and his associates engaged in serious wrongdoing during the 2016 campaign. On this, there is no confusion, no he-said-she-said, no speculation. The evidence is rock-solid.
In 2016, Vladimir Putin’s regime mounted information warfare against the United States, in part to help Trump become president. While this attack was underway, the Trump crew tried to collude covertly with Moscow and sought to set up a secret communications channel with Putin’s office. At the same time, they publicly denied this assault was happening, providing cover to the Russian operation. Trump and his lieutenants aligned themselves with and assisted a foreign adversary as it was attacking the United States.
This was a profound act of betrayal. They aided and abetted an attack on the core of our democracy—our elections—and they lied about it. And they still do. This is the true scandal. It should shock the public and compel action.
But this fundamental fact has not fully sunk in with the American people. That’s why Trump and his minions have been able to dodge responsibility. And, unfortunately, our industry—the media—is partly to blame.
Attempting to track this whole damn thing can make one feel like Carrie Mathison on Homeland. Do you even have enough string or enough space on the bulletin board?Here’s what I mean.
The media coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal tends to focus on the specific components of an unwieldy and ever-expanding story. It is a story with tentacles reaching into other scandals—Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels, other attempted foreign interventions in our election, Paul Manafort’s alleged money laundering and illegal lobbying, and more.
All of this keeps us riveted, eyeballs glued to screens big and small, as we wait for the next big scoop or the next revelation from the Mueller investigation. But there is no order to this cascade of revelations. Each one arrives as part of the fusillade of crazy known as the daily news cycle. What’s the connection between all these stories—the Trump Tower meeting, Jeff Sessions’ recusal, a meeting in the Seychelles, princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates secretly meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Manafort conspiring with a former Russian military intelligence officer to cover up his lobbying for a Ukrainian party? Is there a connection? And how is each new headline related to Putin’s war on America and the way Trump assisted that clandestine operation?
Attempting to track this whole damn thing can make one feel like Carrie Mathison on Homeland. Do you even have enough string or enough space on the bulletin board?
And that’s just it. Trump has no bulletin board—and no need for one. He only requires 280 characters, and sometimes just two words, “witch hunt,” accompanied by other tweets designed to fog and distract from the fundamental point: An overseas enemy struck at the republic—and it succeeded. Trump and his crew helped and encouraged the attack by engaging in secret contacts with Moscow and publicly insisting that no such assault was happening.
In previous scandals, it was not necessary to remind the public repeatedly of the essential elements of the story. No one disputed the Watergate burglary had transpired—the issue was White House involvement and the cover-up.
But this time, Trump and his amen chorus have been claiming there is no Russia scandal—that the real shocker is a secret FBI plot against him. And by forcing politicians and the media to debate whether the Russia scandal actually exists, Trump wins. He has succeeded in diverting attention from how his campaign actions benefited Putin.
Much of the media framing of the Russia scandal has—sometimes unwittingly—let Trump define the terms of debate. The driving question has become whether Trump directly collaborated with Moscow’s covert operation—and whether Trump, as president, tried to thwart the investigation and obstruct justice. Instead of helping the American public understand the gravity of the attack—and the continuing threat—the media often present the Russia scandal mostly as a political problem for Trump.
So what can we do about it? The problem is there is no organized force with as loud a bullhorn countering Trump’s disinformation in fundamental terms.
Republicans and Democrats alike ought to take their—and Trump’s—oath to uphold the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” seriously. And journalists must break from convention. That means not being diverted by the purposeful distractions. Sure, Trump’s tweets and phony narratives deserve attention—and debunking. But not at the expense of reporting and explaining the big picture. His attempts to lie—yes, I know that’s a heavy word—about an attack on the United States and his role in that assault deserve as much attention as his endless and baseless claims that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.” In the age of Trump, journalists have to ascertain and report when a leader is knowingly misleading the people.
At Mother Jones, we see our job as providing the day-in, day-out reporting that is critical to holding the powerful accountable and to do this while presenting the broader context. In the chaotic media environment of this moment, it is crucial to provide both information and understanding. Journalism that only focuses on the latest leak or revelation and fails to depict the wider and deeper story is simply not powerful enough to counter the firehose of lies, propaganda, and disinformation.
Trump’s tweets and phony narratives deserve attention—and debunking. But not at the expense of reporting and explaining the big picture.And this is where I ask you to support Mother Jones during our pledge drive—because if we can raise another $155,000 by June 30 we’ll have enough resources to bring on a senior reporter and a data scientist to tackle the sort of information warfare Trump wages every day.
We may not have Trump’s bully pulpit, but we can produce a steady drumbeat of stories that break news on the scandals and that expand our understanding of what they mean. Mother Jones’ independence and the fact that we’re supported primarily by readers like you allow us to punch well above our weight. One example: I was the only reporter in Washington (or anywhere else) who reported on the existence of the Steele memos and the FBI’s interest in them before the election. And I am confident that our readers—and I mean you—want us to keep digging into this scandal, so much of which is hiding in plain sight.
We are here to counter the disinformation and b.s. To do it with facts and kick-ass reporting. To not get lost in the aggravating chaos and helter-skelter that is engineered to keep the American public from grasping the full truth. Every day we are battling the lies and misdirection.
But this is no lie: We can only do this with the support and help of folks like you. I’ll tell you, it’s not fun to ask for money. I know how hard it is to squeeze a buck out of me! But if you want to be part of our team and this mission, please give what you can. I promise you this: We will do the type of journalism that exposes the deceit and deceptions that are threatening our nation—and make you proud.