The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump and Republicans ‘on offense’? Nah. It’s just the same old gaslighting.

(Evan Vucci/AP)

Have we really learned nothing from the first two years of the Trump presidency?

Welcome to the new narrative: President Trump and Republicans are “turning the tables” and going “on offense” against Democrats and the media, who, we are told, should be groveling for forgiveness in the wake of Attorney General William P. Barr’s brief summary of the special counsel’s Russiagate conclusions.

Unfortunately, there are scattered signs that some in those quarters are taking this far too seriously. We’re seeing news accounts suggesting media coverage of the Russia scandal may have overreached; columnists demanding introspection from journalistic colleagues; and analyses that overestimate the degree to which Trump can now claim victory over Democrats. Some accounts hint at angst among Democrats about how aggressive an investigative posture to strike going forward.

It’s amazing this needs to be stated, but here goes. This “new offensive” from Trump and Republicans is saturated with nonsense from top to bottom, and it is designed to get the media to back off of its entirely legitimate scrutiny of Trump, and to get Democrats to retreat from their entirely legitimate efforts to impose oversight and accountability.

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Trump has spent the past two years screaming “WITCH HUNT!” and “FAKE NEWS!,” even as he and his congressional allies have absurdly cast the investigations as corrupt based on one fake “scandal” after another. Throughout all this, what’s actually happened is that one revelation after another has emerged detailing startling criminality among those in Trump’s inner circle and extraordinary corruption and abuses of power by Trump himself.

Media analyst Erik Wemple blasts critics who say journalists fueled a witch hunt against President Trump. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

It is certainly very significant that the attorney general has declared that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has not established any criminal conspiracy with Russia. This does end one chapter in this scandal.

But come on: Much of the current discussion and journalistic handwringing has the effect of badly downplaying the significance of what has emerged in the past two years, and the potential for more damaging information to emerge. And it doesn’t adequately reckon with the rot of bad faith at the core of what’s driving this new “turn the tables” offensive — an effort to chill continued efforts to unearth that information, through legitimate scrutiny and oversight. We know this, because we’ve seen it for two years.

The media mostly got this story right

“The Mainstream Media is under fire,” Trump raged moments ago. “For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion,” he continued, adding that the media is “corrupt and FAKE.” The White House press secretary is circulating a chart featuring high-profile media figures and describing them as “haters.” Russiagate skeptics on all sides are treating this as a severe blow to the news media’s reputation.

This is ridiculous. Dogged media scrutiny has unearthed a range of extraordinary revelations. Media reporting is what disclosed Trump’s campaign advisers’ active efforts to conspire with Russian sabotage of our democracy, his extensive efforts to bend law enforcement to his political will to prevent an accounting of that sabotage, his habit of concealing the details of his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the original hush money payments that ultimately led to Trump being implicated in campaign finance crimes. Beyond Russia, it also established extensive self-dealing and profiteering off the presidency.

Of course there have been many “Trump is a Russian asset!” and “Manchurian candidate!” excesses by some media figures. But on balance, the decision to devote intense scrutiny and journalistic resources to the multiple Russia-related stories, and to Trump’s corrupt responses to them, has actually been vindicated by the sheer gravity of all that has already been unearthed.

We can debate endlessly whether the excesses detract to some degree from these journalistic achievements. But to claim that the excesses are somehow defining is really just another way to downplay the seriousness of what those achievements have actually brought into the light of day. Which for Trump and his propagandists is the whole point of this in the first place (what is motivating others making this claim is harder to say). On balance, the media got this far more right than wrong.

The value of all that reporting — including what it has told us about Trump’s dealings with Russia — is in no way diminished by the fact that no criminal conspiracy has been established. And right now, the media is responding to the Barr letter with skeptical scrutiny of his decision-making, particularly in clearing Trump on obstruction of justice when Mueller pointedly did not. Given the legitimate questions raised by this decision, this is exactly what should happen.

Democrats don’t need to back off

The Trump machine’s new “offensive” against Democrats is similarly absurd. Overreach on Russia is just not the big story of the past two years. While in the House minority, Democrats were mostly fighting a rearguard action against the GOP’s perversion and weaponizing of the oversight process to protect Trump from accountability and to harass a legitimate investigation into not just “collusion” but also into a foreign attack on our democracy.

That investigation led to extensive indictments, guilty pleas and convictions, and it has set in motion many more investigations into “nearly every organization Trump has run over the past decade,” whose future revelations remain unknown. To claim that Democratic efforts to protect this process constituted overreach, on the basis of the lack of criminal conspiracy charges, is just another way of using that latter fact to denigrate the seriousness of the extensive wrongdoing and criminality that this process has already ferreted out. Which, again, is the whole point.

Now that House Democrats are in the majority, they are demanding documents relating to potential Trump financial conflicts of interest, efforts at obstruction of justice, gaming of the security clearance process, and the dimensions of the hush money scheme and extent of financial dealings with Russia concealed during the campaign. It would be a dereliction of responsibility for Democrats to not be pursuing those things. And on Russia, given how little we know about Mueller’s actual findings and about what went into Barr’s decision-making, Democrats absolutely should be pressing for release of the former and intensifying scrutiny of the latter.

The whole point of the current offensive is to get Democrats to back down on all those fronts. That Trump and his allies claim themselves emboldened to do this by Mueller’s findings, while attacking Democratic efforts to get those findings released, perversely captures the true nature of the gaslighting we’re seeing here. But if anything, this should embolden Democrats to keep pushing forward.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: The media had every right to pursue Russia-Trump. But ...

The Post’s View: Don’t forget: Russia attacked us, and we’re not prepared for it to happen again

Max Boot: No conspiracy or coordination. But lots of Trump-Russia ties and lies.

Greg Sargent: Trump won with illicit help. He abused his power. His AG is blocking a full reckoning.

Henry Olsen: Hold off on your victory laps, conservatives

Anne Applebaum: The Mueller probe shows that our laws need fixing