NPR—liberal NPR!—thrilled Trumpist and anti-anti-Trumpist readers Saturday by publishing and tweeting out a column by Philip Ewing under the headline “The Russia Investigations: An Unfinished Case Looks Weaker Than Ever.” It was a bold counterargument to the conventional news wisdom, which says it is bad for Donald Trump that special counsel Robert Mueller keeps indicting and convicting the president’s henchmen, one after another.
A little too bold, as the headline failed to survive the weekend. Within a few hours, it was revised to “The Russia Investigations: A Case Still Unproven,” and the story had gained an editor’s note at the top declaring “This story has been edited to make it clear that it is analysis and that the allegations of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians remain unproven.”
“Analysis” was generous. Mostly Ewing had fired off a string of rhetorical questions built around things Mueller and the central figures in the investigation haven’t said. Michael Cohen’s supposed trip to Prague, as described in the Steele dossier, has gone unmentioned:
Could the trip, or a trip, still be substantiated? Yes, maybe—but if it happened, would a man go to prison for three years without anyone having mentioned it?
The campaign’s much-lied-about meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower—that too has not been included in any of the legal proceedings so far:
If Manafort isn’t in any legal jeopardy over his role in the Trump Tower meeting, does that suggest no one else is, either? There were a lot of outside theories that the meeting might have broken federal laws barring U.S. political campaigns from getting opposition research from foreigners.
Does the absence of anything about that in Manafort’s case mean the feds actually don’t think there’s anything to prosecute?
Why isn’t the hammer dropping harder on Michael Flynn? Why hasn’t Carter Page been charged? Why—? Why—?
Why is Philip Ewing hurting his brain with this stuff? Why did NPR publish it? What earthly use is it? Like all the best truly, comprehensively terrible stories, it included toward the bottom a paragraph conceding how worthless all the other paragraphs in it were:
Another thing that Americans have come to know about Mueller is that he can keep a secret. So if he has evidence about a geopolitical conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s active measures, the public probably won’t learn about it until the moment the special counsel’s office wants that to happen.
Yet the reason the piece should never have existed is the same reason the piece did exist: the Mueller investigation is a huge, history-making story of which nobody in the press really knows the outcome. Squads of reporters, and behind them legions of take-makers, are busy trying to scrape meaningful predictions out of the redactions in the Mueller filings and the blank spaces where no filings have been seen. It’s maddening, and some people have been fully maddened by it.
There’s value, maybe, in reporters trying to get a picture of where the investigation is going. If Trump tries to pardon everyone, or to fire the entire FBI, or to call out the Three Percenters to blockade the House of Representatives, it will be helpful to know as much as we can about what evidence he’s destroying as he destroys it.
But when or if that happens, those reporters will write it up, and those of us in the armchair public can get caught up then. In the meantime, if it’s not your job to break incremental news on the Trump investigation beat, reading motivated guesswork like the NPR mess is just a headache. Trump is not complex enough and his flunkies and children aren’t smart enough for any of this to be so difficult.
For a safe, straightforward take on the investigations, just keep in mind that, so far, every piece of White House news can be filed under one or more of three folk sayings:
• Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
• Hit dogs holler.
• Rats leave a sinking ship.
Is Trump secretly winning? Is Mueller’s investigation on a “continued slide,” as Ewing had it? Ask the attorney general or the White House chief of staff.