We should take a hard look at our reporting of Trump and Russia

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM


REVERSE FERRET! When he edited the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie used to throw open his office door and bellow this at the newsroom when the paper had got a story wrong. It came from the northern endurance sport of ferret-legging: a pair of razor-toothed ferrets are put down your trousers — no underwear allowed. The Sun would call the ferrets off some hapless public figure and go into full reverse without apology or explanation.

If we in the media have spent the past two years getting the Trump-Russia story wrong, simply pulling a reverse ferret now would not be enough. There would have to be something more. But is a mea culpa required? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

On Friday, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, handed in his report on whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia. The Department of Justice told reporters there would be no more indictments, of President Trump or anyone else. The Fox News presenter Sean Hannity immediately tweeted, with the same foghorn he uses on air: ‘MSNBC CONSPIRACY NETWORK LIARS FAKE NEWS CNN LIARS NY TIMES WAPO LIARS.’ That was to be expected: Hannity is Trump’s favourite journalist. But Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone — who once wrote a book about Trump called Insane Clown President — argued that Russiagate was ‘this generation’s WMD… a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.’ The senior White House correspondent for the New York Times wrote, on the paper’s front page, that there would have to be a ‘reckoning’ for the media (among others).

That’s true. There does have to be a reckoning. We should take a hard look at our reporting of Trump and Russia. But after advancing steadily on one road for so long, the shock of the moment has sent the herd squawking in the opposite direction, a crowd stampeded by a gunshot. We should stop to make sure we have really understood what Mueller is saying. What actually happened at the weekend? We don’t have his report, just a letter to Congress from the attorney general, William Barr, about what it says. Barr’s letter is four pages long, and it fails to quote a single complete sentence of Mueller’s. We are getting Barr’s spin on Mueller, and Barr is Trump’s attorney general. Still, in the most significant fragment revealed from the original report, Mueller says ‘the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities’.

That is a huge victory for Trump. YUGE. Over on ‘failing’ CNN, they were forced to admit the President had been ‘vindicated’. But this is not the ‘complete and total exoneration’ claimed in the White House talking points, helpfully leaked — not on the allegation of obstruction of justice that was also being investigated; perhaps not even on the main question of ‘collusion’. That one word ‘establish’ is important. It means Mueller did not find evidence that would convince a jury ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. But as well as a search for facts to use in a trial, Mueller was running a counterintelligence investigation — the FBI gave it the name Crossfire Hurricane, after the Rolling Stones lyric. Intelligence findings might contain evidence that isn’t enough for a criminal prosecution — but is still evidence. Is Mueller saying he got nothing at all on collusion, or just not enough to prosecute?

This is why Democrats want the full report: Mueller uncensored. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said that if they didn’t get it, they might subpoena Mueller. He said it was vital for the country to know what was in the counterintelligence findings: they might answer the question of ‘whether the President and anybody around him are compromised by a foreign power’. Or not. The Democrats are taking a risk in asking for the intelligence. What if it also repudiates the collusion narrative? Four more years of the Trump presidency? Freddy Gray argues on page 16 that Trump may have been handed victory in 2020.

What, in fact, does the intelligence say? For two years, journalists were told by sources in the ‘intelligence community’ that there was evidence of collusion. These same sources are genuinely bewildered, stunned, a cartoon frying-pan delivered to the face. They were convinced that Trump was up to something with the Kremlin and can’t understand why Mueller doesn’t say the same, having been given the same raw material. One retired intelligence officer told me he’d had a text from a former colleague over the weekend that said simply: ‘Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.’ Two weeks ago, the former head of the CIA John Brennan told MSNBC that he expected more Russia indictments. This week, he said: ‘I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.’

Brennan’s pronouncements on cable news were cloaked in the authority of a former director of the CIA. Anything from ‘intelligence sources’ is dignified in the same way. Graham Greene made fun of this in Our Man in Havana, where sketches of vacuum-cleaner parts are taken by MI6 for blueprints of a secret missile base. As the sketches are passed from field agent to handler to head office, they became intelligence, with the vague feeling of weight and substance that word confers. The US invaded Iraq partly because of a story from an Iraqi codenamed ‘Curveball’, who said that Saddam had biological weapons factories hidden in trucks. After the war, the Americans admitted they had never even spoken to Curveball themselves.

Curveball’s lies were passed along a chain from the intelligence agencies to officials, to journalists and then to the public. It would be an interesting exercise if — just for a short time — we were only to write stories where our sources had actually witnessed the events in question. But chain-sourcing is often the way with intelligence stories, the nature of the beast. You can’t question the original source. Your source probably can’t question the original source. Christopher Steele’s dossier — arguably the founding document of the Mueller inquiry — was based on some 30 sources. Steele, I’m told, thinks it’s impossible that Russian intelligence could manipulate so many different people in a disinformation operation. But those sources came through intelligence ‘collectors’ and other intermediaries — it’s impossible for Mueller, or anyone else, to cross-examine them. This is the difference between an intelligence case and a case you can make in court.

For some in Washington, Mueller was a cross between Superman and Santa Claus. But then he delivered a large gift that turned out to be… an empty box. One senior official in the last administration sounded sick when he called me to say what he thought had ‘gone wrong’. He’d been unable to sleep for several nights, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t understand why Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor, and Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager, were given light sentences, if not in exchange for evidence about a ‘conspiracy’. In the end, he thought it was ‘the Michael Cohen principle’. Cohen was Trump’s personal lawyer and gave evidence to Congress that Trump never really had to tell anyone to lie — they just knew it was expected of them. The former official said: ‘He’s a career criminal… he’s a mob boss. He just indicates, he doesn’t say it, so you can’t prove it. It wasn’t that they didn’t do it [collusion]. It was that Mueller couldn’t prove it.’

The same man said he thought that Mueller had wanted to charge Trump with obstruction of justice — for firing the FBI director James Comey among other things — but Barr had said no. ‘I think Mueller blinked. Barr was his superior officer.’ This might explain the strange way that Mueller set out ‘facts’ on obstruction but left the decision to Barr. The attorney general’s letter says Mueller did not exonerate Trump on obstruction — though a page later, Barr himself does. Another former official said it was still possible that Trump’s older children and his son-in-law would be charged with white collar crime in the Southern District of New York. The source for that has some credibility, having predicted two weeks ago that Mueller would not make the case for collusion — but then again, all this could be wishful thinking on the part of Trump’s critics.

You might think the President himself would simply enjoy watching his critics choking on their words. But Trump is a sore winner. In his initial reaction, he was self–pitying — ‘It’s a shame your President had to go through this’ — and angry, calling for retribution. Like Nixon, Trump has an enemies list. He said later that ‘a lot of people’ had done ‘some very, very evil things’ and ‘those people will certainly be looked at’.

I have a feeling that the pendulum may swing back again — if the Trump children are charged, if Mueller said more about collusion than Barr has passed on, or if it becomes clear that Mueller did want to prosecute Trump for obstruction. But for all that Trump’s victory might not be conclusive, it’s real. And the question for journalists is why didn’t we see this coming?

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