Robert Mueller’s investigation is over, but questions still abound. Not about collusion, Russian interference or obstruction of justice, but about the leading lights of journalism who managed to get the story so wrong, and for so long. It wasn’t merely an error here or there.
America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday - and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it.
Last year the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize “for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.” A 2017 Time magazine cover depicted the White House getting a “makeover” to transform it into the Kremlin.
All based on a theory—that the president of the United States was a Russian asset—produced by a retired foreign spy whose work was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. An unbiased observer would have taken the theory’s partisan provenance as a red flag, but most political journalists saw nothing but green lights. No unverified rumor was too salacious and no anonymous tip was too outlandish to print. From CNN to the Times and the Post, from esteemed and experienced reporters to opinion writers and bloggers, everyone wanted a share of the Trump-treason beat. What good is the 21st-century Watergate if you don’t at least make an effort to cast yourself as the fearless journalist risking it all who got that one big tip that brought down a president?
Not only did the press fail to destroy Donald Trump’s presidency; it provided voluminous evidence for his repeated charge of “fake news.”
Take CNN. The network reported in December 2017 that Donald Trump Jr. received special email access to stolen documents before their public release by WikiLeaks—an accusation that, if true, could have proved the president’s inner circle was colluding with Russian hackers intent on taking down Mrs. Clinton. But it turned out “the most trusted name in news” misreported the dates on the unsolicited emails to the president’s son. They had been sent to him days after WikiLeaks had published the pilfered documents. CNN still hasn’t explained why it failed to do basic due diligence on such an important story.
Another CNN foul-up came in June 2017, the month after President Trump fired James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Trump said Mr. Comey had assured him three times that he wasn’t under FBI investigation. The network reported Mr. Comey would directly refute the president’s claim under oath. In reality, Mr. Comey’s own memos explicitly confirmed Mr. Trump’s statement.
A December 2016 Washington Post story “incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid,” as a later editor’s note acknowledged. “Authorities say there is no indication of that so far.” Slate falsely claimed in October 2016 that Mr. Trump’s computers were secretly sharing information with a Russian bank as part of a scheme to avoid detection.
Each new claim, true or not, became fodder for political pundits. Sure, there may be no actual smoking gun or verified information or anything even approximating evidence, but if you take all the disparate pieces and put them on the same corkboard, stand back at just the right distance, and squint really hard, you can almost make out a barrel and a plume of smoke.
Enter Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, author of the classic 2003 article “Why I Hate George W. Bush.” (“I hate the way he walks. . . . I hate the way he talks. . . . I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him.”) Last July, before Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Mr. Chait penned a nearly 8,000-word piece titled “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart—or His Handler?” Mr. Chait’s speculation—that “Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987”—was worthy of the late Lyndon LaRouche.
In a January 2019 Twitter thread, meanwhile, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asserted that “the failure to connect the dots on Trump-Russia” was one of the “big failures of 2016 campaign coverage.” He added:
“There is no sin quite as offensive as challenging conventional wisdom early, and then being proved right.”
Many in Washington and around the country believed Mr. Mueller’s investigation would put the entire issue to rest. If there was collusion, he’d find it. If there was obstruction of justice, he’d prosecute it. Whatever he found, the nation would accept it and move on.
“The best thing for our country is that Trump is innocent and that Mueller tells us he’s found nothing,” Garrett Graff of Wired tweeted Thursday, the day before Mr. Mueller submitted his report to Attorney General William Barr. “Mueller got everything he wanted,” Mr. Graff wrote Friday. “Never blocked by DOJ in pursuing something he requested. That’s big.”
But the next day, Mr. Graff excoriated Nikki Haley for agreeing: “No, everyone does not have to acknowledge that Trump didn’t interfere with Mueller,” Mr. Graff tweeted Saturday at the former United Nations ambassador. By Monday Mr. Graff was insisting that “a million questions” about Trump-Russia collusion remain.
Likewise, on Monday the irrepressible Mr. Chait insisted the president could still be guilty: “People who want to demonstrate their innocence make displays of cooperation with investigators,” he wrote. “His flamboyant refusal to cooperate deprives Trump of any claim to having been cleared.”
So much for accepting Robert Mueller’s conclusions and recommendations. If your objective is to bring down Mr. Trump, nothing Mr. Mueller or anyone else finds—or fails to find—makes a difference. Mr. Trump didn’t collude with Russia, but he did defeat Mrs. Clinton. From their behavior it is evident that many in the media view that as sufficient to establish his guilt. For them, the Trump-Russia investigation was never about protecting democracy or securing elections—never mind telling the truth, which is supposed to be their job.