It was inevitable that in the wake of Attorney General William P. Barr’s letter summarizing the determinations made by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, President Trump would take a victory lap.
Trump’s repeated insistence on his own innocence in the question of possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election was validated by Barr’s letter, and Trump has had no more consistent an insistence over the past two years than that the Mueller probe was misguided.
It should similarly have been predictable how Trump would take that victory lap: targeting the FBI and the media for foisting the investigation on him. But it’s still a little jarring to see the specific way in which Trump’s going after the media.
Axios’s Jonathan Swan obtained a copy of a memo being sent from the Trump campaign to “television producers,” a group identified with no further specificity. The memo quotes six individuals, four of whom are serving Democratic politicians, making claims about the existence of evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“Moving forward, we ask that you employ basic journalistic standards when booking such guests to appear anywhere in your universe of productions,” the memo reads. “You should begin by asking the basic question: ‘Does this guest warrant further appearances in our programming, given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past?’ At a minimum, if these guests do reappear, you should replay the prior statements and challenge them to provide the evidence which prompted them to make the wild claims in the first place.”
Now, look. Trump himself has made more than 9,100 false or misleading claims since taking office, running the gamut from misrepresentations about policy to explicit falsehoods about other people. Trump’s political career began in earnest when he started making demonstrably false claims about President Barack Obama’s birthplace into any nearby microphone.
Trump celebrates those who go on television to make misleading or false claims on his behalf, from former CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord to staffers like Kellyanne Conway — inventor of the phrase “alternative facts” — to Fox News’s Sean Hannity. If the bar for being on television were a spotless record of accuracy, Hannity’s thoughts would be heard on radio only.
Were television networks to start applying the standard which Trump’s campaign requests, every interview with the president would begin with four-and-a-half hours of past false claims made by Trump for which he’d be asked to provide evidence. Seems inefficient if not entirely useless.
In the case at hand, most of the claims with which the campaign take issue hinge upon the definition of the word “collusion.” Barr’s letter contains a quote from Mueller’s report about the question of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia.
“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” it reads. The word “collusion” doesn’t appear in Barr’s letter, because “collusion” doesn’t have a specific, agreed-upon meaning. The bounds of what might constitute “collusion” between the campaign and Russia was always gauzy and, from what’s publicly available, Mueller made no determination about whether the term was accurate.
So when Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said on CNN in March of last year that, “[i]n our investigation, we saw strong evidence of collusion,” he may have been using the term to refer to, say, the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 where Donald Trump Jr. embraced the idea of receiving incriminating information from the Russian government. Mueller determined that this wasn’t coordination or conspiracy, but to demand Swalwell rationalize using a term that lacks a common definition seems like a rocky road to travel.
Trump’s criticism of the media in the wake of Barr’s letter is much broader, as he revealed on Twitter Tuesday morning.
“The Mainstream Media is under fire and being scorned all over the World as being corrupt and FAKE,” he wrote. “For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion when they always knew there was No Collusion.”
No one knew definitively that there was no collusion, of course. In fact, the evidence — uncovered through diligent journalistic work — revealed a number of connections between the campaign and Russia that mostly remain unexplained.
Trump obviously sincerely feels as though he’s been given a raw deal. He’s consistently chafed at the media’s poking around in things he’d rather they leave alone, his campaign included. His response to the Mueller probe’s conclusion, in fact, seems a lot like his response to the aftermath of the 2016 election, in which the media’s failure to predict his victory became a point of leverage for Trump to disparage the media’s accuracy more broadly.
While part of the Trump team’s response to the media is emotional, much of it is tactical. The memo positions television networks as being willing to allow falsehoods on-air, reinforcing an anti-media message to Trump’s base and — who knows! — maybe even keeping some Trump critics off the air. Trump’s presentation on Twitter of the media as having willingly built up something it knew to be untrue is a way to lash out against another set of critics and again reinforce skepticism of the media with his base.
Irony aside, he does this because it works.