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The rise of the Trump-Russia revisionists

The attempt to rewrite the Trump-Russia scandal is underway. But the critics leading the charge are showing their own blind spots.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin leaning toward one another and shaking hands.
US President Donald Trump, right, attends a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Nearly four years after the Mueller investigation concluded, the Trump-Russia scandal has largely faded from the nation’s political consciousness. The people who now dwell on it most are those who believe it was an appalling wrong committed against Donald Trump — or at the very least, a big embarrassment for the media and an overreach by investigators.

Trump and his staunchest defenders on the right have long made the case that “Russiagate” was a sham, joined by some commentators like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi who aren’t professed Trump fans but who do disdain what they view as the groupthink, dishonesty, and partisanship of the media and liberal establishment.

Late last month, this argument got its most prestigious endorsement yet, with the Columbia Journalism Review’s lengthy series by Jeff Gerth, titled “The press versus the president.” Gerth argued that major news outlets’ Trump-Russia coverage “includes serious flaws” and proceeded to lay out what he claimed those flaws were.

Trump-Russia revisionism is on the rise and the old conventional wisdom is in retreat. Now that the scandal has faded from headlines and all those names and purportedly suspicious contacts have receded into the haze of memory, even liberals inclined to suspect the worst of Trump may be left wondering: What was that all about again, anyway? Did it really matter?

I covered the investigation contemporaneously for Vox, and I do think a reassessment is worthwhile. But the revisionists tend to fall into their own patterns of oversimplification and overhype.

Does the media’s Trump-Russia coverage hold up? It depends on what coverage you’re talking about. The “Trump as Manchurian candidate” theories, the frenzied hunt to unearth any suspicious-sounding “contacts” with any Russians, and anything based on the Steele dossier — the explosive document that purported to have the goods on Trump but very much didn’t — have not aged well.

But the coverage and scandal were about more than that. Though it’s inconvenient for the revisionists’ narrative, the Russian government really did intervene in the 2016 election by hacking leading Democrats’ emails and having them leaked. Much of the coverage of the scandal now derided as “Russiagate” was about the investigation into whether anyone associated with Trump was involved in that Russian effort, treating this as an open question to which we simply didn’t yet know the answer.

Much of what the critics are arguing here is less about the facts of the scandal and more about the larger narrative around it. Should the media have treated Trump-Russia as the biggest political story in the country? Did the overall amount and tone of the coverage leave a false impression of his guilt? How does it compare to scandal coverage of other politicians, like Hillary Clinton?

And was the media and liberal establishment too suspicious of Trump in treating him like an unprecedented threat to the nation or have his subsequent actions proven they were right all along? The revisionists, in arguing that Trump got a raw deal, want to focus more attention on the overreaching of his liberal and establishment critics, but their one-sided account distorts the full picture of what happened, and reveals their own blind spots about the former president as he runs for office again.

How the Trump-Russia story began

Donald Trump onstage at a microphone, grinning and pointing toward the camera.
Donald Trump, flanked by campaign manager Paul Manafort and daughter Ivanka, checks the podium early Thursday afternoon in preparation for accepting the GOP nomination to be President at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday July 20, 2016.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The revisionist account of how this all started is that it was mainly because of falsehoods spread by allies of Hillary Clinton.

The narrative goes something like this: The Clinton campaign paid an opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, to research Trump’s Russia ties, and Fusion paid former British spy Christopher Steele to assemble what became known as his “dossier” of research claiming a vast Trump-Russia conspiracy — claims that, in their specifics, were largely later debunked as false. Various Clinton allies, and Steele himself, tried to get reporters to write about these claims, and law enforcement officials to investigate them.

Later, Clinton allies also learned of a group of computer scientists’ research into whether a Trump server was communicating with Alfa Bank, a Russian bank, and tried to get that to investigators and the press too, but no wrongdoing was ever proven there. Gerth recounts this all in great detail.

Now, all of this happened, and those particular claims about Trump and Russia indeed haven’t held up.

But they are only one part of the story of how the Trump-Russia story began, and a relatively minor part.

A fuller recap of what the scandal was all about would go something like this: What became the FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia was opened in the summer of 2016 for reasons having nothing to do with Steele, Fusion, or Alfa Bank.

That year, leading Democrats had seen their emails and documents stolen in hacks, later to surface on mysterious websites or to be published by WikiLeaks. Initial assessments blamed the Russian government for the hack (and Mueller’s team later confirmed those assessments, fleshing them out with much more detail).

Trump viewed these leaks as highly beneficial to him, touting them constantly on the campaign trail, and even publicly calling on “Russia, if you’re listening” to find more Clinton emails. (He then claimed this was a joke, but in private, he urged his campaign advisers to try and get ahold of more Clinton emails.)

While this was unfolding, the FBI received a tip that a little-known Trump foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, had been saying he knew Russia had damaging emails related to Clinton before any hack news was public. So the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation originally focused on a discrete question: Had the Russian government conveyed information about their plans to interfere in the 2016 election to someone on Trump’s team?

This was, I would argue, an entirely reasonable question. And with hindsight, due to this investigation and reporting, we know that many shenanigans were indeed afoot.

  • Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone was trying to get hacked Democratic emails from WikiLeaks in advance, while apparently informing Trump about his efforts.
  • Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was sharing the campaign’s polling data and strategy with an associate the FBI claims is tied to Russian intelligence.
  • Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had reached out to the Russian government to try to get a Trump Tower Moscow project going, though it didn’t end up happening.
  • Donald Trump Jr. even welcomed an emailed offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton that was said to be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” setting up a meeting with Manafort and Jared Kushner to discuss it. (They didn’t find the information useful.)

Additionally, Trump later tried to get a different foreign government to help him win the 2020 election, in his effort to strong-arm Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskyy into investigating the Biden family — so it’s not like he’s ethically opposed to colluding with a foreign government to help him win the presidency.

And here’s the other thing: Before the 2016 election, Trump-Russia was a minor subplot of the campaign coverage. The Clinton campaign tried to make the scandal catch on, but they didn’t yet succeed. There were occasional stories based on Fusion or Steele’s claims, but there was widespread skepticism of those claims (including here at Vox). When the New York Times did learn of the Trump-Russia investigation, they suggested there was not much to it, in an October 31 story headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” that poured cold water on the Alfa Bank claims.

Indeed, Clinton’s own scandals and other Trump controversies received far more attention before Election Day.

Google Trends data showing searches for “Trump Russia,” “Clinton emails,” “Clinton Foundation,” and “Clinton WikiLeaks” from June 1, 2016 through Election Day 2016
Google Trends data showing searches for “Trump Russia,” “Clinton emails,” “Clinton Foundation,” and “Clinton WikiLeaks” from June 1, 2016 through Election Day 2016
Google Trends

After the 2016 election, though, quite a bit changed.

Mistakes were made

US President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with FBI Director James Comey during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump’s unexpected victory led mainstream media organizations and federal investigators to elevate the question of Russian interference to paramount importance — with suspicions running high.

The public discussion around Trump and Russia then metamorphosed into something far more sprawling, strange, and conspiratorial, centering around the question of whether Trump was either “compromised” by Russia or was somehow a puppet of the Kremlin — a question even some top political players seriously entertained.

This is the moment when Steele’s work had the greatest impact. Without him, “Manchurian candidate” theories may have been limited to self-appointed online gurus spinning elaborate fanfiction. But the dossier circulated in Washington, Comey briefed President-elect Trump on it, and then BuzzFeed News controversially decided to publish it in January 2017.

Steele’s memos cited anonymous sources who laid out a maximalist version of Trump-Russia collusion, claiming he traded policy concessions on Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s email hacking; that his aides even helped pay the hackers; and that he had been exchanging information with Russian intelligence for “at least eight years.” Steele’s memos also fingered another little-known Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, as orchestrating a wild collusion conspiracy with the Russian government.

The memos also brought to life one of the most bizarre subplots of the whole affair: the pee tape. This was the claim that Trump hired prostitutes to “perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him” at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in 2013, implying this could have been secretly taped so that Trump was vulnerable to Kremlin blackmail.

Later investigations revealed, though, that most of Steele’s juicy claims came from one person who didn’t seem to have good intel or even believe in his own findings.

Now, all along, most media coverage did make clear it wasn’t known whether Steele’s claims were true. However, once the dossier was published by BuzzFeed and those claims became public, they were frequently discussed as though they could well be true: On the one hand, Steele says this, on the other, Trump denies it, so who will you believe?

In effect, this kind of framing did legitimize Steele’s claims far beyond what they deserved, letting unsubstantiated rumors and gossip drive coverage. And some media outlets and journalists were more Steele-friendly than others. There was regular discussion of his allegations on cable news, and a drumbeat of articles that kept asserting that more of his claims were being confirmed when they weren’t. (Paradoxically, Steele’s claims also effectively raised the bar for what “counted” as Trump-Russia collusion, making even the absurd seem within the realm of possibility, and setting up the less spectacular reality to later seem underwhelming in comparison.)

Still, the revisionists too rarely acknowledge that many other media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, were more cautious about Steele’s claims, and about theories of Trump being Putin’s puppet. Much of their coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation and the topic generally was newsworthy and stuck to the facts, making clear that it wasn’t known whether Trump conspired with the Kremlin.

Was the coverage perfect? No. There are some types of stories that have held up less well, including two in particular that are frequently criticized by the revisionists.

The first is a genre that was briefly in vogue: the “Russian contacts” story. Fed by anonymous leaks, these stories were about how one Trump associate or another had talked with a Russian at some time, with the ominous implication that these contacts could be crucial to uncovering a conspiracy.

But sometimes, these anonymous sources were incorrect. Gerth cites real-time internal commentary from the FBI’s Peter Strzok critiquing a series of these 2017 New York Times articles as “largely wrong.” And even when the contacts were real, further details revealed them to be not so sinister. For instance, it now seems clear Jeff Sessions was not hiding a secret conspiracy when he didn’t mention in Senate testimony that he met with the Russian ambassador once in his Senate office and also spoke to him briefly at a separate event.

The second genre that proved hyperbolic is Russian trolls coverage. As I’ve written, the panic over online Russian trolls influencing Americans and swinging the 2016 election with propaganda or fake news was overhyped. Yes, this trolling operation existed, and its existence was newsworthy. But the overwhelming amount of coverage may have led to exaggerated perceptions of its impact which, as a recent study confirms, was pretty minimal.

A question of suspicion

US President-elect Donald Trump waves to the crowd after leaving a meeting at the New York Times on November 22, 2016, in New York.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

But the revisionists’ issue with Trump-Russia coverage isn’t just about the stories that were factually wrong. It’s about something bigger, broader, and a bit tougher to pin down: the “narrative.” Media coverage that is accurate and even arguably justified can create an unfair or misleading narrative, due less to the facts than to proportion, hype, tone, and implication.

For instance, leading media outlets did not merely cover Trump-Russia — they made an editorial choice to treat it as the biggest and most important political story of 2017 and 2018. New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet referred to the scandal internally as “Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers,” per a transcript of a 2019 Times town hall.

This was, in many respects, a defensible decision. This was the investigation that seemed like it could bring down the president or at least lead to his impeachment. We now know that it didn’t, but hindsight is 20/20. The core question of whether Trump worked with Russia, if you believed it was unsettled, was important. And as Baquet suggests, in a sense they were following intense reader interest as well (as I know very well, being privy to the traffic statistics for many of Vox’s Trump-Russia stories from that period). It was always going to get coverage — a lot of coverage.

Another question posed by the revisionists is whether the overall tone and tenor of the coverage was too suspicious of Trump, and whether media outlets were too quick to assume he had something to hide.

But recall that Trump fired the FBI director and then quickly contradicted his own aides’ explanation for why he did so, saying it was because of “the Russia thing.” Should the assumption have been that Trump had nothing to hide? (Gerth puts great weight on Trump also saying that he thought the firing actually might prolong the Russia investigation, ignoring the false explanation Trump’s team initially offered for Comey’s firing and sounding rather too credulous about whether Trump truly would have let such an investigation proceed.)

These tensions are inherent to modern political scandal coverage. For decades, the press’s model has been Watergate, in which reporting and investigation gradually, in drip-drip-drip fashion, revealed a dastardly cover-up and brought down the president. Scandal coverage is internally and externally prestigious; it wins prizes and makes reporters famous. It sells.

For this reason, Gerth was an interesting choice to write the Columbia Journalism Review’s Trump-Russia retrospective. He is the reporter who, his critics charge, invented the Whitewater scandal: the claims of wrongdoing over an Arkansas land deal that dogged Bill and Hillary Clinton for years and spurred the appointment of an independent counsel, a long investigation, and (years later) Bill Clinton’s impeachment on an unrelated matter. Gerth’s Times-era reporting on other topics, too, including the series that won him his Pulitzer, faced criticism for making ominous implications that were not borne out. (Semafor’s Ben Smith even reports that Gerth sent what sounds like a rather wildly speculative memo about the Clintons to the Times in 2016.)

In the CJR series — which in my view makes some persuasive points but is overall a selective and one-sided account — Gerth does not reflect on any lessons he may have learned from his own work in the Clinton years. But back in 2015, my then-colleague Jonathan Allen wrote about what he called “the Clinton rules” — the unspoken assumptions that pervaded the mainstream media’s longtime approach to coverage of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Three of those rules, in his telling, were:

1) Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and mainstream media outlets.

2) Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.

3) The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there’s hard evidence otherwise.

Part of this, Allen acknowledged, was due to a general journalistic desire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But, he added, there was another reason: “The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire.”

Election night 2016 marked the shift from the Clinton rules to the Trump rules. But the reality is that when journalists come to the conclusion that a politician is fundamentally untrustworthy and trying to hide things, they tend to make a great effort to try to uncover those things — and sometimes they overreach in doing so.

How should the media cover these unfolding investigations when information about them is incomplete and imperfect and the full story really isn’t initially clear? How much coverage is too much and how much is not enough? Can the press really know in advance which investigation is a nothingburger and which isn’t? These are tough questions with no easy answers.

Coverage of Trump was fraught for another reason. Much of the media, the government, and the Democratic Party really did view him as a uniquely dangerous figure, an aspiring dictator with no ethical guardrails who would do anything to get and hold on to power. Were they right to suspect the worst of him?

The revisionists have argued for years that they were wrong — that, driven by hysteria and partisanship, the liberal establishment exaggerated the threat Trump posed and that the real story was their own abuses of power. And as the Trump presidency settled into something like a routine and he seemed generally contained and constrained by his own administration and the sky didn’t fall, this may have seemed at least arguable.

But Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election torpedoed that defense, laying his character bare and revealing that, yes, he really was willing to go to shocking lengths to hold on to power. Knowing that, it hardly seems unreasonable for the press to have responded to his denials of Russian collusion with skepticism and to investigate whether it happened.

To be clear, there was too much hysterical and flawed reporting in Trump-Russia coverage, and that shouldn’t be defended. But a great deal of thoughtful, rigorous, and newsworthy work took place on that beat too. Journalists did not in the end find that Trump cut a deal with the Kremlin in 2016, but they unearthed a great deal about Trump and his allies in the process.

Dismissing the whole thing as a hoax or debacle — as the revisionists are doing — is too pat a dismissal. It was a complicated, messy endeavor in a complicated, messy time.

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