During his decades on the congressional beat, John Bresnahan has spent countless hours listening to the private concerns of his congressional sources.
But then came Donald Trump. And, boy, did his party’s lawmakers ever have concerns. And those concerns? The most private ever.
Bresnahan, the senior political congressional reporter for Politico, had no trouble getting Republicans to open their hearts to him about Trump leaning on the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden, or his “both sides” equivocating about the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, or some of the troubling findings in the Mueller report and revelations in John Bolton’s book — but almost always on an off-the-record, no-name, no-fingerprints basis.
“Every Hill reporter has spent the entire Trump presidency trying to get people on the record about Trump,” Bresnahan said. “I’ve spent the past five years trying to get people to put their names to their sentiments.”
It’s a culture of anonymity, shot through by fear, that has posed a quandary for political journalists of this era — especially in these particularly fraught closing hours of the Trump administration, when the president has lobbed baseless allegations of election fraud and pursued extralegal means in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the voting results and seize another term in office.
Few Republicans have stood up to defend the process under which Joe Biden was elected — except, of course, privately.
But should journalists even be dignifying these off-the-record sentiments — some condemning Trump’s actions, others promising it will all blow over — by putting them in print? Bresnahan says he has a rule not to quote someone anonymously and on the record in the same piece. And he has avoided whenever possible allowing unnamed lawmakers into his stories.
“If a Republican official isn’t willing to say openly that Trump’s legal battles are as destructive as they are hopeless, it’s hard to discern the news value in quoting them anonymously,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia University School of Journalism.
Bresnahan soon became accustomed to the dance he and other reporters would have to do in trying to get a comment from lawmakers about the latest Trump stunt. It usually kicked off with an elected official pleading ignorance.
“We’d go up to everyone asking about something he just said, and they’d say they didn’t see it,” he recalled. “So we’d print out the tweets. We’d read them the tweets.”
Often, lawmakers would simply shrug. But sometimes they’d express privately what they really thought.
Bresnahan understands why they didn’t go public. There’s never been a president who has been willing to publicly go after his enemies the way Trump has, he said.
“Look at the people who have stood up to Trump — they’ve gotten hammered down. And Trump knows that.”
Which has led to a certain genre of Washington political story, built upon a chorus of ghostly voices. Google “privately concerned” and “Trump,” and you’ll see.
In June 2017, the Associated Press noted that some Republicans on Capitol Hill were “privately concerned” about their new president’s firing of FBI director James B. Comey and other mounting scandals while publicly sticking with him. In July 2019, unnamed GOP senators privately expressed doubts to the New York Times about Trump’s pick for his director of national intelligence, then-Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.). In the fall of 2019, lawmakers weren’t just privately concerned that Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Biden, some were also “privately stunned” that the White House had shown such poor strategic judgment in releasing a transcript of the phone call that made clear that he had done so, The Washington Post reported.
Over the past month, these kinds of conversations — and stories — have become more challenging, as lawmakers seem eager to signal to journalists that they don’t support anything like a coup, yet remain fearful of publicly puncturing Trump’s fantasy of reclaiming the White House or alienating his most rabid fans. A recent survey by The Washington Post of every Republican member of Congress found only 27 would affirmatively acknowledge Biden as the president-elect.
And yet . . . on Nov. 8, a day after all mainstream media outlets called the election for Biden and Trump still failed to concede, the New York Times reported that “privately, the president’s advisers, several of whom have quietly been candid with Mr. Trump that the chances of success in any challenge to the election outcome were not high, had concluded they had little option other than to allow the president to keep fighting until he was ready to bow to the reality of his loss.”
That same day, The Post reported that some of the president’s advisers, including Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, “are publicly fighting on behalf of the president but have acknowledged to others privately that the battle cannot go on for too long.”
The following day, The Washington Post reported on Republican lawmakers’ public support for Trump’s election challenges, but quoted a senior Republican official anonymously who admitted that no one believed it would work: “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”
Politico reported that “most Senate Republicans have refused to publicly acknowledge that Biden will become the next president, even though they admit that’s going to happen in private.”
Journalists defend transmitting these anonymous sentiments because they provide a deeper insight into the minds of lawmakers than their terse, scripted statements. Lawmakers, meanwhile, might see these statements as a way both to reassure the public and impress their sensible levelheadedness upon the press corps.
But many media and political scholars see harm in the practice — particularly now.
Anonymous sourcing is a standard that has been allowed to flourish in Beltway journalism circles that most local journalists would never be allowed to get away with, said David Boardman, the former executive editor of the Seattle Times.
“The result of that has been a whisper culture in which politicians and bureaucrats have been allowed to publicly cover their own rear ends while privately stabbing others in the back,” said Boardman, now the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. “Now, we are reaping the rotten fruit of that practice.”
Even non-journalists from the opposing party seem willing to grant anonymity privileges: “For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator,” wrote Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in a February op-ed in the New York Times explaining his Republican colleagues’ silence on Trump’s impeachable behavior.
How did he know? “In private, many of my colleagues agree that the president is reckless and unfit. They admit his lies. And they acknowledge what he did was wrong.”
Ron Klain, whom Biden has tapped as his White House chief of staff, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell last month that some Republican senators had privately been in contact with Biden. But “I’m not naming names because we read out calls when we read out the calls, when both sides agree to read out the calls,” Klain said.
And so the Washington split screen continues — lawmakers publicly fulminating against so-called election fraud and privately anticipating the dawning Biden era.
“It is not new for politicians to represent a different off-the-record view of their opinions toward the president than the one they profess publicly,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth. “But it matters more when elites are failing to speak out about violations to the norms of our democratic system.”
Mark Becker is not a journalist. He's an auto-industry finance manager in Green Bay, Wis., and the former chair of the Brown County GOP who made a name for himself locally as a devout anti-Trump Republican. He recently wrote a blistering story for the Bulwark about a conversation he had a week after the election was called for Biden with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a high-profile Trump supporter, during which Becker came to realize that "Senator Johnson knows that Joe Biden won a free and fair election."
Becker wrote that Johnson explained to him that he publicly echoed Trump’s election-fraud claims not because he believed them but because Trump motivated voter turnout in Wisconsin.
“It did not seem to occur to Senator Johnson,” Becker wrote in a parenthetical, “that President Trump motivated massive, greater turnout in opposition to him than he did in support.”
The most interesting thing to Becker about the response he received to the article? All the elected Republican officials who reached out to him privately to say “thank you for doing that,” he told The Post. Becker has reached back out to them to ask where they land on speaking out. He’s gotten mostly radio silence.
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Washington's fortress of anonymity imploded — at least temporarily.
Veteran investigative journalist Carl Bernstein tweeted a list of 21 Republican senators who he said have “repeatedly expressed extreme contempt for Trump and his fitness to be POTUS.”
Some of the names were predictable, such as Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of Trump. But others, such as Charles E. Grassley, Rob Portman and Rick Scott, who have publicly supported Trump, rushed to distance themselves from Bernstein’s allegation, though none explicitly denied it.
How did Bernstein know what these senators have said about Trump? He insisted that he was not “violating any pledges of journalistic confidentiality in this reporting,” and that he had learned of these names because these senators had expressed these sentiments “in convos w/ colleagues, staff members, lobbyists, W. House aides.”
Bernstein repeated the names in a CNN appearance but has otherwise declined to elaborate on his reporting or the significance of it.
“What was said on the air and in the tweet speaks for itself,” he told The Post. “And I say that with confidence.”
In many ways, it was a major scoop — but one that many viewers were unwilling to applaud. Perhaps these were truly the high-powered names behind all those “private concerns” stories. But they would rather hear it from the senators themselves.
“The appearance of impropriety that is happening in the Republican Party is disgraceful. And Carl Bernstein saying 21 people are speaking [about Trump] privately?” noted Sunny Hostin, a host of ABC’s “The View,” where the revelation was hotly debated. “ ‘Privately’ means nothing.”
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