The Donald Trump Jr. saga reads like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with everyone’s favorite club-kid, Stefon. In short, this scandal has everything: intrigue, plot twists, a sultry Russian lawyer, an eccentric British publicist, and that thing where the president’s son may have colluded with an enemy nation to affect an election. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
And yet, it just isn’t enough. As is becoming a troubling and unproductive pattern, instead of focusing squarely on all that Trump Jr. himself has revealed, we will inevitably try to make this story bigger, broader and worse than it actually is. Because when it comes to President Trump, his detractors on both sides of the aisle and plenty of people in the press cannot help but overshoot. And it’s playing right into his hands.
On Tuesday, the younger Trump, in a move to scoop a coming New York Times report, released his own emails documenting conversations he’d had with an intermediary who was promising damaging information about rival candidate Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin attorney.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” responds Trump Jr., “especially later in the summer,” seemingly alluding to a good time to release the information.
This alone is not only juicy but seriously problematic. For one, Trump Jr. had previously denied knowledge of any attempts by Russian officials to meddle in the election, calling those allegations “disgusting.” For another, soliciting or accepting a campaign contribution of any value — such as incriminating information — from a foreign national is a federal crime. His defense that he didn’t get anything out of the meeting isn’t a defense at all.
As Jens David Ohlin, a Cornell University law professor, put it, “It’s a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy.”
That will, and should, play out in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of Russian interference in our elections. Whether Trump Jr.’s actions were criminal or just criminally dumb, it looks pretty bad.
But within minutes of the email revelations, all over the airwaves and in every corner of the internet, you could find scores of overshooters rushing to broaden the already substantial story’s implications.
Former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook was on CNN to tell us what we can’t lose sight of: the probability that President Trump knew of junior’s transgressions. He tweeted earlier, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
This question was breathlessly raised over and over again.
Commentator Seth Abramson tweeted: “The chance that Trump did not know about a meeting his sons and campaign manager were having in his building while he was there is zero.”
Women’s activist and Hillary Clinton supporter Amy Siskind tweeted: “the meeting took place ONE FLOOR BELOW @realDonaldTrump’s office incl Trump’s campaign manager, son and son-in-law. And Trump didn’t know?”
But hold on, everyone. The freshly killed body of the Jr. story is still warm and twitching on the table. And we’re already on to the next beat? Can’t we dwell — just for a sec — on the actual news instead of inventing the next news?
All the breathless speculation does is give Trump and his surrogates a shiny distraction. And right on cue, there was Trump Jr. on Sean Hannity’s show Tuesday night throwing cold water on this very charge. “No. It was just a nothing,” he said, when asked if he’d alerted his father to the meeting. “There was nothing to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t have even remembered it until you started scouring through this stuff. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.”
Now, you could certainly make the argument that we have no good reason to believe him. But the point is that now we’re talking about the next thing, a thing which may or may not prove true, when the current thing is definitely true and definitely bad, and is somehow made less important by the prospect of the next thing.
It’s become a pattern. When intelligence officials announced that they had irrefutable evidence that Russia interfered with our elections, many wasted no time pushing the story that Trump had colluded with them. Instead of letting those investigations bear out, we were arguing about the specter of something else, which may eventually prove untrue. Will that make it any less awful that a foreign aggressor tried to impact our presidential election? You’ll sure think so, based on the disappointed looks on so many anti-Trump faces.
When people talk about the quickening pace of the news cycle, it’s not just that news comes faster and in greater volume. It’s that we are so quick to move a story along, get to the next beat, expand the implications, that one story becomes 17 in no time.
This in itself isn’t necessarily bad; every story has angles and trajectories that need pursuing. Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had stopped at the Watergate break-in. But when it comes to covering Trump — who I have said repeatedly is indefensibly hostile toward a free press — it only works to his advantage to overshoot his controversies. If we’re constantly promising a bigger story, which may or may not come, the actual story gets dulled by the hype of the next one.
Trust me, Trump loves this about us. He depends on it. But it’s weakening the public’s trust in the press and it’s diminishing the significance of Trump’s many troubling problems. The president’s wrong to call every critical story “fake news.” But we’re not helping by faking outrage over stories that haven’t happened yet.
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