For more than a year and a half, the media have gone all-in on reporting every possible angle of President Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. No story update has been too small, no encounter with a Russian too inconsequential, and no anonymous source too sketchy to generate outsize coverage and histrionic claims from major media.
But as the Russian collusion story disintegrates, another interesting story ascends. Investigations by multiple congressional committees as well as an investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Justice have shown irregularities in the handling of the most politically sensitive probes in recent memory: the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information while secretary of State and the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged nefarious ties with Russia to meddle in a U.S. election.
These investigations have resulted in the firing, demotion, and reassignment of at least six top officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice. And all of those personnel changes were made before even the first official reports and memoranda from these investigations were made public.
In recent weeks, however, some official documents have come to light. These are statements made by elected members of the U.S. government on the record, not selective and political leaks from anonymous sources. So how have the media responded to these official statements regarding wrongdoing? Mostly by downplaying, mocking, and ignoring them.
When the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s majority memo was made public last week, many journalists highlighted Democratic talking points against it or otherwise rushed to defend the agencies credibly accused of abuse of power. As soon as they could, they dropped the story, despite the dramatic claims in the memo.
Two nights ago, a criminal referral by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was published with far fewer redactions than an earlier version of the referral. The less-redacted letter was significant. For one thing, it confirmed all of the major claims from the House memo authored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
A Clinton campaign document formed an essential part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application to spy on a Trump campaign affiliate. The application failed to note that the campaign document was bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The dossier wasn’t corroborated so much as taken in faith based on the supposed credibility of its author, even after the FBI discovered he’d violated his working agreement with them. A top Justice official’s wife also worked on the Clinton campaign effort. The official funneled her information into the investigation.
The FBI hid their relationship with the Clinton operation from the court. The principal creator of the dossier revealed that he was “desperate” to keep Trump out of office, and the FBI knew this but didn’t tell the court about his extreme political bias. A news article obviously sourced to the dossier author, Christopher Steele, was presented in the application as separate from and corroborating the dossier.
In addition to supporting the major claims of the House Intelligence memo, the criminal referral also said that Clinton associates — elsewhere reported to be the extremely sketchy Cody Shearer and Sid Blumenthal — funneled information to Steele and he took it seriously, itself completely discrediting for someone working with the FBI.
Grassley and Graham had to fight the FBI tooth and nail to get this memo released with few-enough redactions to serve the public. Grassley accused the bureau of playing a “bureaucratic game of hide the ball.” In short, there were multiple interesting angles worthy of serious — perhaps even breathless — coverage.
Yet Major Outlets Don’t Want to Talk About This
Instead, The New York Times ran a story on page 19 of the newspaper. Its portions about the criminal referral — as opposed to its portions repeating Democratic talking points — could not have been more dryly written or uninteresting. Reporters Maggie Haberman, Sharon LaFraniere, and Michael Shear devoted a total of five sentences in a 22-paragraph story to the Grassley and Graham expose. It ran under the false headline “2 Senators Issue Letter To Support House Memo,” even though the letter was issued in early January, weeks before the House memo was made public. The criminal referral was only this week published with few-enough redactions to make sense of it.
What about at the Washington Post? Their reporters did not write a story about the significantly less redacted letter released Tuesday. A blog post mischaracterized the more redacted version of the letter Monday as a letter written “in an effort to breathe life into the deflating Nunes effort. Unsurprisingly, it’s another big nothing.” It’s not nothing, as coverage of the less redacted letter shows. It confirms the dramatic claims in the House memo, which are anything but deflated. And it was written weeks prior to the House Intel memo. But other than that, great job downplaying.
Certainly Politico covered the dramatically more transparent letter released Tuesday, right? Wrong. I mean, it’s not a scandal if you don’t look at it!
Before we move on to the next big example, let’s look at Washington Post senior political reporter Aaron Blake, who was very upset on January 5 when Grassley and Graham announced the criminal referral of dossier author Steele. That’s when the criminal referral was announced, but we didn’t know why they made the referral until late Tuesday night. Back in January he tweeted that it looked “pretty darn political,” wondered why they made their cover letter public when the particulars were classified, and quoted someone calling it a distraction and “nonsense.” When both the highly redacted and less redacted version of the letter came out this week, however, he was silent.
He did find time to repeatedly throw cold water on the revelations of the House Intel memo, saying it was “laughable” to be concerned about the FBI hiding the fact the dossier was bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton when attempting to secure a wiretap to spy on a Trump campaign affiliate. He said arguments in support of the memo were “tortured.” And he generally tweeted and retweeted critiques of those with a different perspective on FISA abuse than the average House Democrat.
Where Journalistic Instincts Go To Die
Let’s turn our attention to another big development in the growing scandal of mismanagement at the FBI. The broad contours are already known. The FBI’s deputy assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division, Peter Strzok, and key FBI lawyer Lisa Page were alleged to be cheating on their respective spouses with each other, presumably a big no-no for counterintelligence officials seeking not be compromised. The chatty duo exchanged tens of thousands of text messages about their work on the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation.
Yesterday the majority on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released an interim report on “The Clinton Email Scandal And The FBI’s Investigation Of It.” Sen. Ron Johnson and staff explained that the inspector general investigation into the handling of the Clinton email investigation brought to light text messages that raise questions deserving further explanation. Did political bias influence the FBI’s investigation? Did the Obama Justice Department or White House influence the FBI’s investigation? And did political bias influence the FBI’s actions regarding President Trump?
The summary report notes problems with how the FBI handled the Clinton investigation, such as handing out immunity generously instead of empaneling a grand jury to obtain evidence. Director James Comey’s statement letting Hillary Clinton off for her mishandling of classified information was circulated months before she and other key witnesses were interviewed. Edits to that statement all downplayed the severity of her actions.
Comey said he didn’t talk with Justice or the White House, but text messages suggested otherwise. Strzok and Page discuss an “insurance policy” against the “risk” of a Trump presidency and “OUR task.” They talk about “unfinished business,” “an investigation leading to impeachment,” and an acknowledgement of “no big there there” on the Russia collusion story. They knew about the discovery of additional classified Clinton emails on an unsecured laptop for a month before Congress was notified. And the FBI claimed it didn’t have five months’ worth of text messages requested by investigators, but the inspector general was able to recover them in less than one week.
Fox News had an early story on this interim report headlined, “FBI lovers’ latest text messages: Obama ‘wants to know everything’.” It began:
Newly revealed text messages between FBI paramours Peter Strzok and Lisa Page include an exchange about preparing talking points for then-FBI Director James Comey to give to President Obama, who wanted ‘to know everything we’re doing.’
The message, from Page to Strzok, was among thousands of texts between the lovers reviewed by Fox News. The pair both worked at one point for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Page wrote to Strzok on Sept. 2, 2016, about prepping Comey because ‘potus wants to know everything we’re doing.’ According to a newly released Senate report, this text raises questions about Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email investigation.
It is true that the report says this relates to the Clinton email investigation, despite the September date. The report gave a footnote for this explanation, which said, “The Justice Department notified the Committee that it had redacted other text messages that were personal in nature or relating to other investigations.” It added, “Presumably, because this message was not redacted, the Department believes it may relate to the FBI’s investigation of classified information on Secretary Clinton’s private server.”
So since the committee was only supposed to see texts that relate to the Clinton email investigation, the committee presumed this related to the email investigation. But a later Wall Street Journal report based on anonymous sources close to Strzok and Page say they were actually talking about Obama’s involvement in the Russia investigation. The texts discussed drafting talking points for Comey because “potus wants to know everything we’re doing.”
The chatty duo, or their representatives, gently delivered their case to the Wall Street Journal‘s Del Quentin Wilber, that there was nothing at all to worry about. Obama was about to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in China and wanted to discuss election meddling.
This seems eminently reasonable. And reporters such as Lachlan Markay of The Daily Beast immediately accepted this as the complete answer to the curious texts, taking the opportunity to mock people who thought otherwise:
This is standard procedure for most reporters. But this explanation isn’t as airtight as reporters all agreed it was. For one, Obama adamantly declared on national television that he never got involved in any FBI investigation at any time for any reason. You can watch him here. Asked if he’d pressure the FBI on the Hillary Clinton case, he responded: “I do not talk to the Attorney General about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line and always have maintained it. I guarantee it.”
That Strzok was drafting the talking points about Russia is again reasonable. He was running the investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and Russia, having launched that investigation in July, if not earlier informally. Let me quote CNN from last month, “As a leading counterintelligence expert, Strzok was also involved in opening the investigation into ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives.”
And if the President of the United States wanted to know everything about Strzok’s investigation into Trump and Russia, he’s the president and can do that, even if that contradicts his televised claims.
Now, a reasonable and even mildly curious press corps would start to have some synapses firing. Hmm. President Obama was briefed by Comey on an ongoing investigation into Russia’s election meddling. He wanted to know everything. Was he told everything? Was he told about the focus on the Trump campaign? Was he told about the dossier? Was he told about the source and funding of the dossier? Was he not told about the focus of Strzok’s investigation?
But instead of a curious press corps, we have folks like Aaron Blake, who made an earlier appearance. You will no doubt be surprised to learn he thinks there’s just nothing to worry about whatsoever — nothing to even look into, really — about a text regarding Obama wanting to “know everything” about a Russia probe that we’ve been told was focused on Trump since at least July 2016, calling it “dubious.” Of the notion a text about Obama’s involvement in a briefing suggesting, well, personal involvement, Blake said it “doesn’t make sense.”
Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, is similarly incurious. In a series of tweets, he explained that the real story was that Fox News wasn’t skeptical enough about the Senate Homeland Security Committee report’s claim that the “potus wants to know everything” text was about the Hillary email investigation when anonymous sources claim it was about the Russia election meddling investigation that was laser-focused on the Trump campaign and therefore case closed, nothing to see here. His story is headlined, “Right-wing media obsesses over FBI text message story; hours later it’s debunked.”
Now, if you accept anonymous sources as the voice of God, it’s true that the Wall Street Journal “debunked” the notion that Obama might have talked to an FBI director about an investigation into Hillary Clinton. But in the place of that claim, the anonymous sources broke the news that Obama was talking to an FBI director about an investigation into Trump’s campaign working with Russia to meddle in an election. Some debunking!
Some might say that the news Obama was briefed on Strzok’s pending Trump-Russia investigation is about a million times more interesting than the report he was being briefed on the Clinton probe months after Comey let her off. Darcy uses anonymous sources to say that Obama didn’t want to know “everything” about the Russia investigation so much as “nothing much”:
A person familiar with Strzok’s thinking reiterated this account, telling CNN that the text referred to Obama’s broader interests in issues of potential Russian interference in the election more generally. The idea that Obama was micromanaging the FBI’s investigation does not match reality, the person said.
Well you can take that burning of a strawman to the bank, assuming the bank in question is the “Bank of Anonymous Sources Who Say There’s Nothing to See Here So Please Stop Asking Questions.”
Darcy has a point that Fox News should dig into claims, even if it sourced the original claim correctly to Wisconsin senator Johnson. Now he should follow his own advice and encourage people to start asking far more questions about the Russia-Trump investigation we’ve been hearing so much about for so long.
What did it mean for Strzok to open an investigation into the Trump campaign? What type of surveillance was involved? What types of investigative techniques were involved, other than securing wiretaps to spy on campaign affiliates? How many people were investigated, and on what grounds? What did Obama know about this investigation? When did he find out about the dossier? When was his first briefing on it?
The Wall Street Journal’s anonymously sourced claim that Obama got a briefing on Strzok’s Russia-Trump investigation is far more interesting than Fox News’ report on an old Hillary Clinton briefing. Now reporters should begin digging into it instead of considering it case closed. Yes, even though it relates to President Obama.
And if reporters at American newsrooms are so narrow in their thinking that they can’t even imagine lines of inquiry in a direction other than “nothing to see here” for politicians not named Trump, they should hire some people with more diverse viewpoints to help them.