The afterimage of the news was easier to see than the news itself, which would turn out in the end to be more of a projection of news than news, properly speaking. But before all that was the first thing, which in my morning Twitter feed was someone using a quote tweet to comment on a tweet from Donald Trump, in which Donald Trump attacked the New York Times in the kind of general terms he uses when he’s mad about something specific.
The second thing was a tweet of a video clip of someone from the New York Times saying Donald Trump was lying about some specific complaint about an aspect of the paper’s reporting. To this point, I had still not encountered any discussion that said what the story was that was causing all this activity. All there was was a looming whipped-up meringue of grievance and of disapproval of grievance, none of it giving the slightest indication what was going on.
I had to go through the New York Times page to figure it out. The origin of the trouble seemed to have been a big story with the headline “Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him” and four bylines on it. Even then it was hard to be sure exactly what the news was. There was one new-sounding anecdote about the president trying to get his sketchy acting attorney general to put a “Trump ally” in charge of the federal investigation in the Southern District of New York, which seemed bad but also seemed exactly like the sort of thing Trump is already known to do. The Times itself immediately said as much:
Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr. Trump’s public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking.
Exactly so. And yet: there was a big piece all about it. The Times gamely argued that there has been “an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement,” demonstrated by “numerous unreported episodes” its reporters had uncovered. Probably that was true, but at this point saying there is a deeper conflict between Trump and law enforcement than we’ve already known is like saying there are more moons in the solar system than we’ve previously discovered. It’s just a basic property of the solar system that where you look for moons, you find them.
The occasion for the story was not any particular piece of news inside it, but a news event apparently coming closer and closer to happening on the outside: In the past few days, news organizations have finally started to sound confident that Robert Mueller is about to finish his investigation into the president and shut down the special counsel’s office.
As long as the Mueller investigation has been going on, people have been making sweeping declarations about what it’s going to mean, or not mean, and about how stupid other people’s sweeping declarations are, all according to the demands of their own desperate political and psychological agendas. Amid all the politics and speculation, the theory has been, Robert Mueller is supposed to be a third party who can objectively say what the Trump scandals are (or aren’t).
He won’t be, and he can’t. Nobody has the power to bring about a shared understanding of what’s going on. Donald Trump will never stop saying whatever suits him, and he’ll never stop doing whatever he wants, and his political party is long past the point where anyone who cared about the law or just cared about appearances would have had to bail out.
What the Times was trying to do was to break through the numbness and write a coherent story that would not depend on Mueller. The facts of what’s going on are already established. The president is an obvious crook, in domestic and foreign affairs alike, and he would have already been impeached if our political system had the genuine ability to do anything about crooks in positions of power. He is doing whatever he can, publicly and privately, to reject the idea that he should ever face any blame or consequences.
The Times keeps writing stories that are meant to give this the weight of history, and the results just keep on being ponderous and confusing. The Trump story exists outside any realm where things make sense and everyone has to agree they make sense.
At one point, the Times story attempted to recount what had happened in the White House after Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in 2017. The Times presented as very important a passage in which Trump treated it as very important that Trump decided to start claiming that he had asked for Flynn’s resignation himself, rather than Flynn having just resigned. The distinction between resigning and being asked to resign and being fired is one of the blurriest in all political reporting under ordinary conditions; the original Times account of the whole episode had been that “Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, asked for Mr. Flynn’s resignation.”
After the splitting of this particular hair, the Times moved on to the next part of the narrative:
“This Russia thing is all over now because I fired Flynn,” Mr. Trump said over lunch that day, according to a new book by Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor and a longtime Trump ally.
Mr. Christie was taken aback. “This Russia thing is far from over,” Mr. Christie wrote that he told Mr. Trump, who responded: “What do you mean? Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who was also at the lunch, chimed in, according to Mr. Christie’s book: “That’s right, firing Flynn ends the whole Russia thing.”
It was a delightful quote to read attributed to Jared Kushner—a perfectly dishonest and dimwitted utterance. But it wasn’t attributed to Jared Kushner, really, exactly, was it? Even with four bylines on the story, this part was attributed to Chris Christie’s book, which attributed it to Jared Kushner.
Here, any readers hoping to be grounded by the Times‘ storytelling found themselves floating out past the moons of Neptune. The building blocks of knowledge, for a newspaper like the Times, are whatever facts someone is willing to tell the newspaper are true. If the facts are in dispute, someone other person will be willing to say the conflicting facts, and thereby bracket the range of things the reader is invited to believe. People stake their reputations on the things they tell the press; even anonymous officials are staking the reputation of whatever institution or authority they stand for, and are putting out a landmark on where one boundary of the facts might be.
The process may tend to produce various kinds of spin and deception and diplomatic fiction rather than empirical truth. Still, though, it is an established methodology for generating a certain product with a certain relationship to empirical truth, or at least a relationship to an existing body of truth- or fact-like constructions.
None of this works if a newspaper is using Chris Christie telling a story about Jared Kushner telling a lie as evidence for what’s going on with Donald Trump. No one involved has any habit of telling the truth or presentable untruths; no one has a reputation to uphold; everyone is already at war with objective reality and with one another. The story was that there still was no story.