The president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, now disbarred and preparing to go to prison as a convicted felon, told the House Oversight Committee about his former client: “He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
Wasn’t this news? Was this enough news? Helpless before the onrushing news event, I had failed to set myself up with the best option and had simply clicked the first player I saw, on the New York Times website, where the video feed was accompanied by a scroll of commentary from the political experts at the Times.
At 12:13 p.m.—with hours of hearing still to go—Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman added this to the scroll:
The big questions are whether Cohen changes anyone’s minds or provides a new arc to this story.
I’m not sure that either has happened.
“Maggie Haberman,” like “New York Times,” is one of those terms that draws a categorical negative reaction whenever you tweet a criticism about it. It’s not fair, categorically speaking—Haberman’s job means she works in proximity to Donald Trump, and the results of that work are sometimes illuminating and sometimes complicit in the badness of Trump himself. When Haberman goes wrong, it’s not because of some personal failing, but because she is correctly reflecting the values and worldview of hopelessly broken political and journalistic systems and institutions.
And so, with the event of the day nowhere near being over, the person whose job was (in theory) to witness and tell about events was already writing speculative analysis about how people would receive the shape of the story of what was going on. A beat reporter was giving production notes about the “arc” of a narrative that consists of the things the beat reporter writes about. The view from nowhere had outflanked itself and closed around its own reflection.
What Haberman was looking for, under that abstraction, was that same thing everyone in Washington feverishly fantasizes or counter-fantasizes about: the Marshal of the Supreme Court, the pee tape, the word “COLLUSION” carved in granite by Robert Mueller—some definitive, dispositive plot twist that will change the terms of the story. What Michael Cohen was providing, instead, was a vivid third-party summary of the knowledge that’s available to everyone, that the president is a crook and a liar and a racist, and that under any functioning system of democratic self-rule he would have been long since thrown out of office.
The arc of a story is the same straight line it’s always been. People’s minds haven’t changed and won’t change because their original commitments to Trumpism already carried them past any point of return. It’s not dramatic. It’s just an everyday tragedy.