‘For the moment, however, the only thing worse than ignoring the evidence of crimes by a president is ignoring the absence of evidence against a president.’
That’s George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley in a Saturday opinion piece in the Hill — just one of dozens of pundits chiming in across publications and speculating that a time of reckoning, as Axios put it, may be here.
This reckoning, if not for a President Trump who sits far from vindicated in the last 48 hours of a swirling news cycle and still targeted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia, including what role if any the president may have played, then a reckoning for the news media outlets trying to crack open that investigation.
The Buzzfeed report (sourced to two unnamed law enforcement officials but also, reportedly, documents and texts) centered on the president’s involvement in a real-estate deal with Russia during the 2016 campaign. It dominated the Friday news cycle, a cycle extended by the rare (Saturday’s coverage can’t express enough just how rare) response from the Mueller team to a press report:
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” the Mueller spokesman said.
It’s not clear which parts specifically the Mueller team refutes. And for that reason, as well as his pledged belief in the reporting, BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith stands by the story.
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 19, 2019
Much of the news media, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, were careful to bookend with a “If true, then…” hedge as they commented on the BuzzFeed revelations. BuzzFeed (with a serious news staff but also known to churn out listicles such as 15 Poop Horror Stories That Will Make You Feel Better About Yourself) late last year won a defamation suit over its contentious release of the notorious Russia dossier 10 days before Trump took office.
Axios said very rarely has a story around the Mueller probe been so unequivocal with its clean line of connection: Trump directed Cohen to lie, and there’s proof. We can’t show it, of course, but there’s proof. The New York Times and the Washington Post had their own inside sources who were skeptical of the validity of the leaks. Fox commentator Sean Hannity spoke from behind a “BuzzFeed Busted” chyron. CNN was cautious, too, but covered the story of the story, drawing a critical Trump tweet about repeating BuzzFeed at all.
For sure, slapping a felony charge on a president is a massive claim to stake on anonymous sources. The president has denied any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice.
Trump on Saturday even thanked the Mueller team, whose probe has clouded the work of this administration from early on, for speaking up. “I thought that the Buzzfeed piece and maybe equally as bad, the coverage of the Buzzfeed phony story, it was a total phony story, and I appreciate the special counsel coming out with a statement last night. I think it was very appropriate that they did so, I very much appreciate that,” Trump told reporters.
GW’s Turley, for his part, used his column to warn that the Mueller investigation, once revealed, may lay bare the differences between alleged behavior unbecoming to the office and actual lawbreaking. Or, as at least one pundit has put it, “lawful but awful” actions. And it’s that difference that can make the scramble for scoops difficult and dangerous.
“First there was collusion. Then there was obstruction. Then there was subornation. As the Russia investigation has migrated to every new allegation, a host of experts have proclaimed conclusive grounds for the imminent prosecution and impeachment of President Trump, soon followed by calls for immediate impeachment proceedings, only to be followed by mitigating or conflicting evidence on each allegation,” Turley wrote.
“The president may well be shown to have committed criminal or impeachable acts including subornation. That, however, will require concrete evidence and the satisfaction of the elements of a specific crime. Mueller may supply such facts or he may not. It is the seeming refusal to accept the latter possibility that has increasingly distorted media coverage.”