But there’s a major difference between the press coverage of the WMD story and the Russia business, one that deserves highlighting. Much of the faulty WMD coverage was contaminated by partisan liars who described non-existent weapons programs and caches in hopes of drawing the United States into a new Gulf war. And let’s not forget that credulous coverage had consequences far more dire than the roughing-up Trump has endured. But to my knowledge, no similar set of liars misled the press in a campaign to incriminate the president. The press has covered the Trump-Russia procedurally, the way it does whenever a major figure is accused of wrongdoing. In effect, reporters started putting Trump on trial the day special counsel Mueller was appointed, and as is usual in such procedural coverage, they indicated the sense of his guilt or innocence months and years before he got anywhere near his day in court. That’s the way the American press has worked for almost two centuries. When press coverage suggests conviction but the jury (or the prosecutor) exonerates, you’re welcome to diagnose a press failure but I think it’s something different.
In defense of the coverage, let’s remember that charges of collusion didn’t arise in a vacuum. Thanks to Mueller, we now know about the steady and suspicious dalliances with Russians during the campaign by the easily compromised, ethically challenged, political amateurs inside Trumpworld—George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. (and Michael Flynn after the campaign). Recall how many documented lies Mueller has caught the president’s men telling. Recall again the relationship between Manafort and his business associate Konstantin V. Kilimnik, believed by Mueller to be allied with Russian intelligence. The Russians weren’t just SoulCycling in their many encounters with the president’s men; they were peddling dirt or an agenda distinctly favorable to the Kremlin. Just because Mueller’s report concluded that the president didn’t commit a crime doesn’t mean there was nothing going on. We still don’t know why Trump was so eager to end FBI Director James Comey’s investigation of Russian influence, and so willing to take two years of political punishment for firing him. All of these questions—and more—will now be taken up by the various House committees.