President Donald Trump and his defenders are spiking the football as if they were heading to the Super Bowl after the office of special counsel Robert Mueller III publicly disputed a BuzzFeed report that Trump had instructed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Trump even went so far as to thank Mueller for “coming out with a statement,” saying, “I very much appreciate that.”
Yes, this is the same Mueller whom Trump disparages as the leader of 13 or 17 (the number varies) “Angry Democrats” who are engaged in a “WITCH HUNT!” Turns out that Mueller is not engaged in a witch hunt but a fact hunt. His willingness to set the record straight even when it helps Trump indicates his fundamental integrity – something that Trump implicitly admits by citing Mueller as an impartial authority.
But Trump should not take too much solace from Mueller’s cryptic correction. BuzzFeed may well have been wrong in writing that Trump personally told Cohen to lie (although the publication still stands by its article). But Cohen himself admitted in his sentencing plea that his lie to Congress was “in accordance with Client-1’s directives.” So while the special counsel’s team might not have evidence that Trump personally told Cohen to lie, it’s not disputing Cohen’s claim that his false testimony was coordinated with Trump’s aides in furtherance of the president’s own lies.
Trump has repeatedly denied doing business with Russia. Now his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, admits that Client-1 was pursuing a Trump Tower project in Moscow through the fall of 2016 – in other words, long after it was common knowledge that the Russians were hacking Democratic Party computers. Trump might just have dodged accusations that he actively suborned perjury, but what he did was bad enough – he concealed his business dealings with a hostile foreign power that was helping him to win the presidency. That BuzzFeed might have gotten some part of the story wrong hardly exonerates Trump.
While BuzzFeed’s disputed report does make the rest of the press look bad by association, we should remember how much the media have gotten right. Thanks to intrepid reporting we know that the Trump campaign tried to change the language of the Republican platform to be less critical of Russia; that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, got millions of dollars from pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine; that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had secret conversations with the Russian ambassador and then lied to the FBI; that Trump pressured FBI Director James Comey to shut down the investigation of Flynn; that Trump told Russian diplomats that firing “nut job” Comey eased pressure on Russia; that the high command of the Trump campaign met with a Russian representative promising dirt on Hillary Clinton; that Trump repeatedly tried to fire Mueller; that Trump tried to hide details of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin from his own aides; and that the FBI investigated Trump as a possible Russian asset.
The Trump-Russia story is hard to report, because both sides are so secretive and deceptive. But what’s striking is how few scoops have been revealed to be wrong – especially now that we know Mueller’s office will sometimes steer reporters off what it believes to be an erroneous allegation. A few attention-grabbing articles – e.g., the Guardian report that Manafort met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or the McClatchy report that Cohen met with a Russian representative in Prague – remain uncorroborated by other outlets. When that happens, news organizations such as the Washington Post make clear that the reporting is unverified. Maybe they shouldn’t mention the allegations at all, but it’s hard to see how they can be ignored when they circulate so widely online – and when members of Congress are commenting on them, as they did after BuzzFeed’s article appeared last week.
The press and politicos would be well advised take a deep breath and not pounce breathlessly on every new story claiming wrongdoing by Trump. But occasional blunders should not distract from the larger truth: The Trump era has been a golden age of reporting. Trump rages against the “fake media” not because they get so much wrong but because they get so much right that he would rather keep hidden.
Max Boot is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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