Throughout the Russia scandal, President Trump has acted flamboyantly guilty, most recently by comparing himself implicitly with Richard Nixon during Watergate, and dismissing informants as “rats.” And yet a weekend report in Axios confidently asserted that the president maintains a fully innocent state of mind: “Trump himself thought then and thinks now that he personally has nothing to lose because he personally did nothing wrong.”
How could reporters know what Trump “believes” deep in his heart? They couldn’t. (Indeed, Axios since corrected the statement to report that it reflects what Trump “tells associates,” rather than claiming definitive insight into his mind.) Yet this practice is extremely common within the news media. While they have dug up an extraordinary amount of incriminating facts about Trump, reporters have also repeatedly leaned into the most exculpatory interpretations of those same facts.
For instance, a devastating and detailed Washington Post account of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian election interference contained this bit of speculation posing as fact: “Clouding Trump’s judgment all week has been his apparent inability to distinguish between Russian ‘meddling,’ of which there is overwhelming evidence, and Russian ‘collusion’ with the Trump campaign, which special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is still investigating, and which the president insists did not happen.”
This failure to distinguish meddling from collusion is only “clouding Trump’s judgment” if he did not collude. If on the other hand he knows there is evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia, then it is perfectly sensible for Trump to leave Russia’s underlying guilt ambiguous. Trump may not be a bright man, but the distinction between actions Russia took on its own and actions the Trump campaign took in cooperation with Russia is an extremely simple one. Trump’s apparent inability to grasp it, despite the extensive and well-chronicled efforts of his advisers, might not be a failure of cognition. He might well be aware that his campaign colluded with Russia, in which case, his refusal to distinguish the two is clarifying his judgment rather than clouding it.
Sometimes reporters have described the innocent account of Trump’s behavior as the views of his advisers. “One reason Mr. Trump is reluctant to spotlight the issue of election interference, White House officials said, is he can’t separate it in his mind from the outcome of the 2016 election,” reported The Wall Street Journal last month. “Accepting that Russia interfered, as he sees it, devalues his victory and unfairly casts doubts on his legitimacy as president, the officials said.” The New York Times reported, “some people close to Mr. Trump have concluded that he feels vulnerable to Mr. Putin, even if it is in his own mind, rather than because of any damaging information possessed by the Russians.”
These reports do not actually state that those Trump advisers are correct. But it presents their view as something close to determinative.
Another Axios piece from last month toggles between putting the innocent explanation in the mouths of Trump officials and putting it in the reporter’s own voice. “A number of people who’ve discussed election meddling with Trump, including current senior administration officials, say his brain can’t process that collusion and cyberattacks are two different things,” reports one story. A few lines down, the same story asserts, “Ego prevents him acknowledging the possibility that any external action could have interfered with his glorious victory.” Notice how the theory — Trump is too dumb to understand the difference between what Russia did and what his campaign did — is initially presented as the belief of Trump’s friends, and later becomes a simple fact.
A reason I wrote my story last month about Trump’s web of ties to Russia is because news accounts have leaned so heavily toward the most innocent explanations for Trump’s behavior, even though those explanations are frequently bizarre. It is certainly possible those innocent accounts will turn out to be true — sometimes strange and unlikely accounts of human behavior turn out to be correct. My premise was that unlikely-but-possible innocent explanations for Trump’s behavior were gaining wide traction, while equally plausible damning explanations were being ignored.
The Washington Post’s fine analyst Philip Bump, who sharply criticized my story as speculative, has presented his own explanation of Trump’s submissive pose toward Russia:
The lingering question, of course, is why this is Trump’s approach to Putin. His most fervent opponents would suggest that the true answer to that question is known only to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, or, perhaps, by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. It seems clear, though, that a significant part of Trump’s approach is simply how he sees dealmaking. NATO is a contract that was thrust upon him. Putin is a deal waiting to be made between two strong-minded individuals. That others insist such a deal is unwise or can’t be done is all the more reason for Trump to run toward it.
I will concede that Bump might be totally correct. Maybe skeptics like the former CIA director are wrong in their suspicion that Trump’s policy toward Russia is being influenced by his extensive history with, and undisclosed financial ties to, its oligarchs and operatives. Maybe Trump really is just trying to make a great deal. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Bump is merely offering an interpretation. He is describing more suspicious analysis as the product of “fervent” minds, and calling his own interpretation “clear.”
And it is true that Bump’s exculpatory interpretation has been frequently treated in the media as if it were clear. But it is nothing more than speculation. And it is striking that, for all the incriminating facts the news media have amassed about Trump, they have repeatedly given him the benefit of the doubt as to what those facts add up to.