While Trump’s troubles stack up, reporters should stick to the facts

Posted at 10:25 PM, Dec 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-10 00:25:06-05

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Is Trump the Person of the Year?

We all know about President Trump’s affinity for TIME magazine. And we know how much he cares about titles like Person of the Year. So I’m wondering: Will he be on this year’s cover? Perhaps TIME dangled the possibility to snag an end of the year interview? I don’t know. But I do know this: If he IS the POY, it won’t be an “honor.” It would be because of the controversies and scandals and criminal investigations that have paralyzed his presidency despite strong economic numbers and other traditionally positive signs for a president.

It was different back in 2016. He was named TIME’s Person of the Year shortly after surprising everyone and winning the election. That time, he said his selection was “a tremendous honor.” But so much has changed in the two years since… I mean, the big story this weekend was that he’s been implicated in two crimes…

Announcement on Tuesday

I know, I know, a lot of people say TIME’s POY is just a marketing stunt to sell magazines. But when done right, it’s a special way to mark a moment in time. The 2017 cover featured the “silence breakers” who spoke out against sexual harassment. The 2018 cover will be announced by editor Ed Felsenthal on the “Today” show Tuesday morning… “Today” is also doing a piece on the magazine’s shortlist, ten contenders, on Monday morning…

What next?

“Buckle up,” CNN’s Manu Raju tweeted Sunday night. Trump’s schedule on Monday “only has one thing listed: lunch with Pence. Nothing else at the moment…”

Both Kelly and Ayers are out

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins was spot-on. She reported on Friday that chief of staffJohn Kelly was expected to leave in the coming days, and on Saturday Trump confirmed it when Brian Karem asked about Kelly during a South Lawn Q&A. There was immediate chatter about the VP’s chief of staff Nick Ayers possibly taking over… But no, on Sunday Ayers declined the job and said he’s leaving too…

A powerful lede in Monday’s NYT by Maggie Haberman: “As President Trump heads into the fight of his political life, the man he had hoped would help guide him through it has now turned him down, and he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of having no obvious second option…”

BTW: Kelly has not commented on his imminent exit yet. Can’t wait to hear his side of the story…

— Reminder: Just a few months ago, Kelly said that Trump had asked him to stay on until 2020, and he’d accepted…

— I oftentimes think about this quote from Trump’s FIRST chief of staff, Reince Priebus, talking about W.H. chaos: “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50.”

Bernstein: Trump led a ‘criminal conspiracy’

“Donald Trump, for the first time in his life, is cornered,” Carl Bernstein told me on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.” Bernstein also shared some new reporting: He revealed that one of the principal witnesses came away from an interview with Mueller’s team saying that “they know everything about Russia.”

Bernstein has described the Nixon years as a “criminal presidency.” So at the end of the interview, I asked him if the same term applies to President Trump. “I don’t think we know completely yet,” Bernstein said. But “I think it’s very obvious that there has been a criminal conspiracy led by the president of the United States to obstruct justice. It’s hard to see otherwise in the filings that have been made public thus far.” Watch the rest here…

Recommended reads

— David French says the latest filing about Michael Cohen is “ominous” for Trump. Andrew McCarthy, a frequent Trump defender, says Trump is likely to be indicted.

— Adam Davidson writing for The New Yorker: “It is no longer journalistically sound to report on the Trump investigation as if it is a matter that may, or may not, yield damning information about the President.” It has, already, yielded the info…

— James Risen writing for The Intercept: “What is obvious is that, despite Trump’s denials, he and his campaign were involved in repeated, serious efforts to develop deep connections to Vladimir Putin’s regime from the very beginning of Trump’s run for the presidency.”

“Stick to the facts”

On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” we talked about the challenges of covering these complex investigations. Susan Glasser advised journalists to be humble and “stick to the facts.” What we already know is shocking enough — no need to speculate. David Zurawik agreed: “Now more than ever, we have to really NOT get out in front of our skis.”

I really appreciated this point Zurawik made: “Look, this is a HUGE story. There is no narrative in American life — fiction or nonfiction — as big as Trump v. Mueller,” he said. “It’s got everything in American life. A man of rectitude, who believes in the rule of law, versus a man who will say anything, who scorns law, who’s taught by Roy Cohn to do everything he can to avoid the law. This is huge. Even I think some people don’t realize, in our unconscious, that this is battle for our national soul. So, we do want closure.”

I said that Z’s remarks are an excellent answer to the question I’m often asked, “Why do you all cover Trump so much?”

David Frum added: Trump “has the potential to end organized human life on this planet in seven minutes.” Through his control of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. “So, he’s a pretty big story. And if you believe this person is –if there’s evidence that this person is — mentally unstable or a criminal, that’s really newsworthy.”

Sad but true?

WaPo’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker reported over the weekend: “The White House is adopting what one official termed a ‘shrugged shoulders’ strategy for the Mueller findings, calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe…”

Deception is a form of disrespect

Trump’s nonsensical tweet saying that Friday night’s damning court filing “totally clears the President” is just the latest example of his deceptions.

Now, I don’t know if he’s lying in this particular case. He may actually believe he’s been cleared, which is even more worrisome than straight-up lying. But here’s what I wanted to pointed out: Trump’s deceptions are, among other things, a sign of disrespect. He’s talking down to his supporters, plus the rest of the country, by constantly saying stuff that’s not true. Many of his allies are doing the same thing. It’s a sign of disrespect. And when we in the press repeat the B.S. uncritically, we just make a bad situation worse…

Frum: Treat Trump’s comments ‘with tongs’

Building on my comments, Frum criticized newsrooms that send out stories and tweets with Trump’s deceptions quoted as-is, without any corrections. “The president’s statements are news objects, not news topics,” he said. “You have to treat them the way you’d treat an allegation or a potentially defamatory statement, you have to treat them with tongs…”

“Early on, Trump-Russia obsessives were marginalized; they’re prophets now”

Brian Lowry emails: Check out Virginia Heffernan’s LA Times column about the growing vindication of “Trump-Russia obsessives,” one-time Chicken Littles who are increasingly finding company among media outlets and personalities that were prone to dismiss or downplay them…

The Atlantic’s ANGER cover

The Atlantic’s next cover will come out on Monday… But here’s a first look… The cover story asks “Why Are We So Angry?”

Charles Duhigg wrote what the mag calls “the untold story of how we all got so mad at one another, how dangerous our fury has become, and what we might do about it.” He interviewed social scientists, political operatives, psychologists, protest organizers, and others… And says it’s much deeper than Trump… “A whole host of invisible forces have been steadily transforming a useful and episodic emotion into something much darker and more persistent…”

Read more of Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…


— James Comey speaking on stage with Nicolle Wallace at the 92Y: “All of us should use every breath we have to make sure the lies stop on January 20, 2021…” (CNN)

— “The War on Truth Spreads” is the title of an editorial in Monday’s NYT… “Democratically elected leaders borrow from the anti-press playbook of dictators and tyrants…” (NYT)

In this Rolling Stone story, John Podesta talks in-depth about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory “and its impact on his life for the first time…” (RS)

— Coming up Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET: Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee…