The other evening I was on a cable news show to cover the latest Russia news of the day—and I had an epiphany.
We were talking about a recent scoop from Michael Isikoff, the co-author of my latest book, Russian Roulette. He had reported that a Spanish prosecutor had handed the FBI wiretapped transcripts of a Russian official who was suspected of money laundering and for years had been trying to gain influence within the American conservative movement and the National Rifle Association. We then discussed a New York Times article revealing that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime fixer, had met with a Russian oligarch in January 2017, around the time a US company affiliated with this tycoon began making $500,000 in payments to Cohen. Next we turned to the latest in the so-called Spygate nonscandal—the false claim, championed by Trump and his defenders, that the FBI infiltrated a spy into his presidential campaign for political purposes.
Then the show moved on. We had spent 15 or so minutes on these important developments, delving into the details—but without referring to the essence of the story. And it hit me: Though it’s clear Trump’s presidency has been hobbled by the Russia scandal, the manner in which this matter plays out in the media has helped Trump.
Almost every day, Trump pushes out a simple (and dishonest) narrative via tweets and public remarks: The Russia investigation is a…well, you know, a witch hunt. Or a hoax. Or fake news. He blasts out the same exclamations daily: Witch hunt, hoax! Hoax, witch hunt! That’s his mantra.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2018
His synopsis is easy to follow. It encompasses (even if by ignoring) every new fact and revelation. It connects all the inaccurate and false dots Trump and his partisans toss out: Unmasking! Obama wiretapped Trump! The FBI improperly obtained warrants to conduct surveillance on his campaign advisers! And so on. He’s the victim. The bad guys are the Dems, libs, prosecutors, and deep staters pursuing this huge nothing-burger for nothing but political gain. The Russia story, in Trump’s telling, is a black-and-white tale of evildoers persecuting a great man—him. Sad. And this bully uses his pulpit (and smartphone) to transmit this simple message nonstop.
A.P. has just reported that the Russian Hoax Investigation has now cost our government over $17 million, and going up fast. No Collusion, except by the Democrats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2018
The other side—the accurate perspective—isn’t that complicated. 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, sought to set up a secret communications channel with Putin’s office, and repeatedly denied in public that 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. The evidence is rock-solid: They committed a profound act of betrayal. That is the scandal.
But how often do you hear or see this fundamental point being made? The media coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal—which has merged with Cohen’s pay-to-play scandal, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and a wider foreign-intervention-in-the-2016-campaign scandal—has yielded a flood of revelations. Yet the news reporting tends to focus on specific components of an unwieldy and ever-expanding story: a Trump Tower meeting between Trump aides and a Kremlin emissary; what special counsel Robert Mueller may or may not be doing; the alleged money-laundering and tax-evasion skullduggery of Paul Manafort; a secret get-together in the Seychelles between former Blackwater owner Erik Prince and a Russian financier; the Kremlin’s clandestine exploitation of social media; Russian hackers penetrating state election systems; Michael Flynn’s shady lobbying activities; Trump’s attempted interference in the investigation; and so much more. It is hard to hold on to all these pieces and place them into one big picture.
Why aren’t the 13 Angry and heavily conflicted Democrats investigating the totally Crooked Campaign of totally Crooked Hillary Clinton. It’s a Rigged Witch Hunt, that’s why! Ask them if they enjoyed her after election celebration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2018
These revelations do not emerge in chronological or thematic order. They arrive as part of the fusillade known as the daily news cycle. One day, we learn that Trump last year leaned on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Another day, we see headlines that Mueller has indicted Russian trolls. We learn that—yikes!—a former Trump campaign adviser has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to put the campaign in secret contact with Putin’s regime. We’re told that Donald Trump Jr. during the campaign met with a shady character representing the princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who were secretly offering to help Trump. Or the big story is that Trump has acknowledged he dictated a false statement issued in his eldest son’s name about the Trump Tower meeting. What’s the connection? Is there a connection? And how is each new headline related to Putin’s war on America? Attempting to track this whole damn thing—while the nation experiences a larger hurricane of crazy—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. Or less. Sometimes just those two words—witch hunt—accompanied by other tweets designed to fog and distract by raising peripheral and non-evidence-based matters, such as the phony Uranium One scandal and other supposed examples of Democratic malfeasance. The problem is there is no organized force with as loud a bullhorn countering his disinformation in fundamental terms.
Why didn’t the 13 Angry Democrats investigate the campaign of Crooked Hillary Clinton, many crimes, much Collusion with Russia? Why didn’t the FBI take the Server from the DNC? Rigged Investigation!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018
In the face of Trump’s fact-free denials, who is reminding the public of the basics—that Russia attacked, and that Trump aided and abetted the operation? If you watch cable news or are addicted to Twitter, you can see Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the Republicans and the forces of Fox News over the Russia probe on practically a daily basis. A few other Democratic members of his committee join the fray when the news cycle permits. But Sen. Mark Warner, (D-Va.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, prefers maintaining a lower profile. And there are no other Democratic bigwigs who have assumed the task of addressing the beyond-cable audience and fiercely reiterating and emphasizing the core narrative. When it comes to framing the overarching story, Trump practically has a monopoly.
This traces back to the weeks before and after the 2016 election. A month prior to Election Day, the US government declared that Russia had mounted a cyber attack and influence operation against the United States. (To call this action “meddling” is to diminish its full significance.) But at a time when Trump was being hammered by the Access Hollywood video and conventional wisdom held that he was toast, President Barack Obama and his aides chose not to generate a major fuss regarding this unprecedented disclosure. They feared amplifying the disorder the Russians were trying to cause and worried that Trump would seize upon a big White House reaction to bolster his claim that the election was being rigged against him. The White House let this dog lie. And most of the media focused instead on Trump’s grab-them-by-the-pussy problem and the parallel (and not coincidental) release by WikiLeaks of the juicy emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta by Russian hackers.
Yet a few days following the election, Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, confirmed the hacking of Democratic targets and the public dissemination of stolen emails was “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.” He added, “This was not something that was done casually. This was not something that was done by chance. This was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily.”
In the subsequent weeks, few leaders of the Democratic Party complained vociferously about the Russian attack or the assistance the Trump campaign provided the Kremlin. When asked, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), the top two Democrats in Congress, would say they supported creating an inquiry. But neither were beating any drums. Democrats seemed too shocked at the results to move expeditiously. Perhaps they worried they would be accused of being sore losers. It took a month or two for the calls for an investigation to become loud enough to force GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to agree to such probes.
Meanwhile, Obama said little about the Russian attack. In early December 2016, the White House announced that Obama had called for an intelligence community assessment. At the end of the month, he hit Russia with sanctions for its intervention in the election, though the punishment was arguably not sufficiently tough. (Obama and his advisers did fear going too far and sparking a crisis with Moscow, at a time when Trump and his gang of inexperienced hands were about to take over.)
For his part, Trump kept insisting there was nothing much to talk about regarding Putin’s intervention. Instead, he focused obsessively on denying the salacious allegations about him within the Steele memos and decried the fake news media, the vehicle through which information on the Russia scandal would reach the public.
Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to "leak" into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Once the congressional investigations were launched in early 2017, Democrats largely stepped back and ceded much of the rhetorical terrain to Trump. In normal circumstances, this might have been the responsible thing to do. But now Trump had the big-picture turf mostly to himself. There would be much debate in reaction to new developments, such as Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Largely, though, there was less discussion devoted to the controversy’s basics.
In previous scandals, it was not necessary to remind the public repeatedly of the essential elements of the story. Once the scandalous activity was revealed, there was no argument over whether it had actually happened. No one disputed the Watergate burglary had transpired—the issue was White House involvement and the cover-up. Ronald Reagan and his aides conceded the administration had sold arms to Iran and sent the profits to the contras fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua. The issue, again, was what the president knew—and whether this had been illegal.
But this time, Trump and his amen chorus have been claiming there is no Russia scandal—and insisting the real scandal is the existence of a secret FBI plot against him. They have promoted a perverted version of reality at a volume of 11. By merely forcing a debate over whether the Russia scandal truly exists, Trump clouds a tremendously important matter and scores at least a partial win. He has succeeded in diverting attention from his campaign actions that benefited Putin.
The Russia Witch Hunt is rapidly losing credibility. House Intelligence Committee found No Collusion, Coordination or anything else with Russia. So now the Probe says OK, what else is there? How about Obstruction for a made up, phony crime.There is no O, it’s called Fighting Back
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
Along with his shouts of “witch hunt,” Trump also incessantly declares, “No collusion.” This simplistic piece of shorthand aims at a straw man. Trump seems to be setting a bar that favors him: Unless evidence emerges that he personally met with Russian hackers, told them which Democratic Party emails to steal, and then provided guidance on how to release the material, then nothing wrong occurred. But the public record is already replete with serious wrongdoing committed by Trump and his aides. For example, after being secretly briefed in mid-August 2016 by the US intelligence community that Moscow was behind the hack-and-leak attack on the Democrats, Trump publicly claimed there was no reason to suspect the Russians.
With his “no collusion” chant, Trump is like an embezzler who yells, “There was no murder”—and asserts that is the only relevant benchmark. Think of what Trump did during the campaign in this fashion: A fellow is standing on a sidewalk in front of a bank. He is told the bank is being robbed. He can see armed men wearing masks in the bank. Yet when people pass by and ask what is happening in the bank, he says, “There is no robbery. Nothing to see. Move along.” Even if this person did not collude with the robbers, he is helping the gang perpetrate a crime. And in Trump’s case, the criminal act was committed for his gain.
Much of the media framing of the Russia scandal has followed Trump’s lead and adopted his collusion-centric perspective. The debate, such as it is, has become whether Trump directly collaborated with Moscow’s covert operation—and whether Trump, as president, tried to thwart the investigation and obstruct justice. The story is not driven by the serious offenses already established: Trump and his associates encouraged and assisted an attack from a foreign foe.
In this ongoing fight, it is Trump and his bumper stickers versus a media presenting a wide variety of disparate disclosures that come and go quickly in a hyperchaotic information ecosystem, often absent full context. No wonder then that a recent poll found that 59 percent of Americans said Mueller has uncovered no crimes. In fact, he has secured 17 criminal indictments and obtained five guilty pleas. Accurate news reporting alone does not always carry the day.
The Russia scandal is the most important scandal in the history of the United States. President Andrew Johnson was impeached (but not convicted) because he violated an act of Congress to remove a secretary of war. In the Teapot Dome scandal, the secretary of the interior in Warren Harding’s administration leased federal lands at low rates to private oil companies, presumably in return for bribes. In Watergate, a president and his aides engaged in political skulduggery against political foes. President Bill Clinton lied about a sexual affair he had with a subordinate in the White House. All these scandals raised serious questions about integrity in government. But at the heart of the Russia scandal is the most fundamental issue for a democracy: the sanctity of elections.
An overseas enemy struck at the core of the republic—and it succeeded. Trump and his minions helped and encouraged this attack by engaging in secret contacts with Moscow and publicly insisting no such assault was happening. This is far bigger than a bribe, a break-in, or a blow job. And, worse, the United States remains vulnerable to such a strike.
Yet the full impact of this scandal does not resonate in the daily coverage and discourse. In many ways, the media presents the Russia scandal mostly as a political threat to Trump, not as a serious threat to the nation. And many Americans, thanks to Trump and his allies, view it as a charade. All this shows how easy it is for disinformation and demagoguery to distort reality. That is a tragedy for the United States. For Trump—and Putin—that is victory.
Listen to David Corn discuss this idea on last week’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast: