The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the conventions of political journalism help spread Trump’s lies

President Trump on June 15 reacted to the Justice Department inspector general's report, calling it the "most biased set of circumstances I've seen in my life." (Video: Reuters)


One of the most important but overlooked lessons in the bombshell report on the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation is that bad-faith, right-wing ref-working, via purely instrumental attacks on institutions, works. Buried in the report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general is evidence that former FBI director James B. Comey undertook actions that damaged Clinton’s candidacy, in part, because he had been spooked by such attacks.

Right on cue, the news media’s coverage of the inspector general’s report is also confirming the same lesson: Bad-faith ref-working is producing its desired results once again.

The report’s core finding is that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Clinton was untainted by bias or politics. This lays waste to one of the most important narratives pushed by President Trump and his allies in the quest to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation by claiming law enforcement is riddled with anti-Trump corruption.

But in many of this morning’s accounts about the report, you find versions of this additional claim: The IG report nonetheless provides fodder and ammunition to Trump and his allies to discredit Mueller’s probe.

Trump’s allies have widely cited the inspector general’s findings about the now-infamous texts between an FBI agent and lawyer — which do show animus towards Trump’s candidacy — as not just proof of anti-Trump bias at the FBI during the Clinton investigation, but also to bolster Trump’s argument that the Mueller probe into Russia-Trump campaign collusion is suspect.

Many news accounts inadvertently grant these arguments credibility, not just by quoting them, but also by claiming as fact that the conduct in question actually does lend support to those arguments. Yes, they also convey that the inspector general’s overall conclusion undercuts the Trumpian narrative. But the straddle itself is the problem. It showcases a convention often relied upon in political journalism — the use of the “lends fodder” formulation to float false claims alongside true ones — that has to go.

For instance, the New York Times quotes a Trump ally pushing his narrative, and then asserts as fact that “any independent criticism” of Comey “helps” Trump “undermine the credibility of someone who may be a crucial witness against him in any case of obstruction of justice.” The Associated Press claims the report gave Republicans “ample fodder” to “question” the Russia probe. The Post says the report will serve as a GOP “cudgel” against Mueller. CNN asserts that the inspector general gave Trump “fodder” to claim a “deep state” coup.

But here’s the problem: There is no neutral way to make this claim. Either the inspector general’s actual findings legitimately support that Trumpian argument about the significance of those findings, or they do not. To be sure, these accounts sometimes quote an interested party on the other side saying the findings don’t support the Trump/GOP interpretation. Yet this isn’t enough, particularly since these accounts also state as neutral fact, in the voice of the omniscient journalist, that the findings do indeed provide “fodder” for those arguments, effectively conferring legitimacy on the Trump/GOP interpretation of them.

This rewards bad-faith arguments. The IG report simply does not legitimately lend “fodder” to efforts to undermine the Mueller probe. Take the Times’ claim that the report may boost efforts to undermine Comey’s credibility as an obstruction witness. As David Leonhardt notes, the IG report doesn’t question Comey’s credibility; it questions his judgment in his handling of the Clinton case. So that claim adds meaning to the report that isn’t there, conferring legitimacy on the manipulation of the inspector general’s findings in service of a bad-faith assertion.

Or take the claim by Trump’s allies that the report’s demonstration of anti-Trump bias by two FBI employees means the Mueller probe is deeply suspect or illegitimate. That’s the “fodder” some accounts refer to. But describing this neutrally as fodder for that interpretation effectively endorses it. And this interpretation is just straight-up nonsense. As Brian Beutler and John Harwood point out, even if there are legitimate concerns about the FBI agent who texted about stopping Trump, the IG report showed, above all, that any such bias was institutionally prevented from impacting the Clinton probe and that the FBI’s conduct helped elect Trump. That agent got removed from the Mueller investigation. The claim that the report lends “fodder” to Trump’s attack on Mueller announces itself as true — even though it isn’t — by virtue of the fact that Trump is treating it as such.

Bad-faith attacks get rewarded

One troubling finding in the inspector general’s report is that Comey revealed those “new” Clinton emails, in part because he was concerned that if he didn’t, the FBI “could be accused of attempting to help Clinton get elected.” Elsewhere, Comey lamented the fact that he must worry about such accusations, even if false, because of our “poisonous atmosphere.” We all know what this means: Comey was worried that the FBI, which Trump and company assailed during the campaign as in the tank for Clinton, would be falsely accused of rigging the election if he didn’t go public. So he did, and this helped tip the election against her. The bad-faith attacks were rewarded.

We’re again in a similar position. The claim that the inspector general has given “fodder” to Trump/GOP attacks on the Mueller probe’s legitimacy helps Trump and Republicans create a generalized atmosphere of doubt about it, at best by furthering the idea that this is grounds for a legitimate dispute between good faith actors on either side, and at worst by tacitly endorsing that idea. And once again, the result is that the bad faith attacks are getting rewarded.

* DESPITE NOISE, MUELLER KEEPS ON GOING: The Post reports on what’s happening with the Mueller probe in the background, even as Trump allies keep trying to undercut it:

Mueller, who remained characteristically silent Thursday, is trying to secure an interview with Trump in the coming weeks so he can finish his report on possible obstruction of justice. He has told Trump’s lawyers that he would like to complete that report within 90 days of interviewing Trump and well before this year’s midterm elections — a timeline that could be upended if the president and Giuliani continue to resist giving him a final answer.

And by the way, the bad-faith trumpeting of this IG report by Trump allies and right-wing media could embolden Trump to hold out against an interview with the special counsel.

* IG REPORT BLOWS UP TRUMP’S SPIN: This summary of the findings of the Inspector General’s report from former White House counsel Bob Bauer cuts right through the baloney:

How much this report helps Mr. Trump depends on how successfully in the short term he mischaracterizes its findings. But in the long run, the report stands as a conclusive rebuttal to his persistent claims that Hillary Clinton violated the law and escaped only because the investigation was somehow rigged.

The report’s overall finding — that the probe’s conclusion was not tainted — blows up Trump’s spin that the FBI corruptly declined to prosecute Clinton, which is crucial to his narrative.

* TRUMP ESCALATES TRADE WAR: NBC News reports that Trump has approved a plan for tens of billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods, and China is expected to respond in kind:

Trump has already slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and European allies, and his proposed tariffs against China risk starting a trade war involving the world’s two biggest economies. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Friday that China’s response would be immediate and that Beijing would “take necessary measures to defend our legitimate rights and interests.”

China has drawn up a list of U.S. products to target aimed at hitting rural America. Hey, if trade wars are “easy to win,” then multifront trade wars must also be easy to win.

* SENATE MAP SHRINKS, HELPING DEMS: Politico reports that the Senate map is not looking quite as horrible for Democrats as it previously did:

Democratic incumbents look increasingly safe in four Rust Belt states President Trump carried in 2016 — Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin . . . Both parties agree a core universe of states are truly in play: Republicans are targeting Democratic incumbents in Missouri, Indiana, Florida and North Dakota, while Democrats are contesting GOP-held seats in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee. There is disagreement on how competitive West Virginia and Montana are.

It’s not difficult to see an outcome in which Democrats hold their ground or lose one seat (or gain one or two, which would be extremely difficult but not impossible).

* THE WAR OVER OBAMACARE ISN’T OVER: Paul Krugman points out that only a massive public backlash prevented the GOP repeal drive from succeeding, and it will come back if Republicans hold Congress:

If Republicans still hold Congress next year, anyone who has a history of medical problems and doesn’t get health insurance from his or her employer will lose coverage. . . . a note to older . . . voters: You may think that none of this matters to you, because you’re covered by Medicare. If so, think again: If Republicans win in November, they’ll be coming after Medicare next, to offset the cost of their tax cut. Who says so? They do.

This is right. The stakes this fall are very high, and one reason for it is that, if Republicans win, they will be newly emboldened to try again to roll back the safety net.

* A ‘TENT CITY’ FOR CHILDREN: The Trump administration is planning to erect a new shelter in Texas for the overflow of kids separated from parents, resulting from “zero tolerance” border policy:

The Department of Health and Human Services will erect a “tent city,” full of large tents whose walls touch the ground, that is estimated to hold 450 beds for children, say the sources. . . . As of last week, over 570 unaccompanied children were in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, and nearly 300 of those had been held for more than 72 hours, the limit for holding an immigrant of any age at a border station.

A similar tent city was erected for immigrants during the Barack Obama administration, NBC reports, but this level of overflow of children in particular is a mess of the Trump administration’s making.

* AND TRUMP ‘JOKES’ ABOUT STATE MEDIA: This is a remarkable nugget of reporting from The Post:

At one point, after watching North Korean television, which is entirely state-run, the president talked about how positive the female North Korean news anchor was toward Kim, according to two people familiar with his remarks. He joked that even the administration-friendly Fox News was not as lavish in its praise as the state TV anchor, one of the people added, and that maybe she should get a job on U.S. television, instead.

Seriously. Fox News (our state media) isn’t nearly obsequious enough. They really need to up their game, by bringing in more journalists with proven experience in flattering dictators.