the national interest

How the Media Helped Trump Carry Out His Ukraine Smear

President Trump and the media Photo: Alastair Pike /AFP/Getty Images

On May 1, the New York Times published a story that contained the most important facets of the Ukraine story. The Times reported that President Trump, through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was pressing Ukraine’s government to investigate Joe Biden. And yet, having uncovered a massive scandal, the Times buried its own scoop. The revelation, which many people now see an an impeachable offense, was buried in the middle of a story that was primarily devoted to carrying Trump’s water.

Headlined “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies,” the story spun out a version of the narrative Giuliani has been trying to implant in the media. It suggested that, during his tenure as vice-president, Joe Biden took untoward action to help his son Hunter’s business in Ukraine by demanding the firing of a prosecutor who was investigating him. The news about Trump’s role arrived only after nine paragraphs of insinuations against Biden. And then, after a brief detour that casually reveals that the Biden story is the product of an extraordinary abuse of power by the president, it returns to a long unspooling of the Biden-Ukraine narrative.

Even at the the time, and especially in retrospect, it was an example of extremely bizarre journalistic judgment. One of the biggest presidential scandals in history had been dropped into the Times’ lap, and it relegated the news to a subplot to its main story of vague insinuations against Biden. The reporter, Ken Vogel, was too wrapped up in trying to nail the story he set out cover to notice that the actions of his sources, rather than the information they were promoting, was the real story.

The Times article had important ramifications. It immediately cast Trump’s Biden campaign as an oh-by-the-way detail, allowing the scandal to fester unremarked in the background for months until happenstance thrust it back into the headlines.

The strange saga of the Times scoop also suggests something more disturbing: that Trump has hacked into the mainstream media’s ethics and turned them to his advantage. What’s more, even now that his conduct has been exposed, Trump’s gambit that he could abuse his power to discredit an opponent may yet succeed.

The alleged Biden scandal that the Times was attempting to plumb has been conclusively debunked. Biden’s call for firing a notoriously ineffectual Ukrainian prosecutor was in line with the stance not only of the Obama administration but the IMF, the World Bank, Western allies, and good-government types of all sorts. What’s more, the case against the Ukrainian firm that employed Hunter Biden had been dormant before the prosecutor’s firing.

Trump has presented his demands that Ukraine investigate Biden as high-minded opposition to “corruption.” This turns reality on its head. Biden was pushing Ukraine to root out corruption, and Trump and Giuliani are working hand in hand with the most corrupt elements in the Ukrainian polity — the actors who secretly hired Paul Manafort to elect pro-Russian kleptocrats. Trump, meanwhile, has displayed a notable indifference to foreign corruption. He has publicly disparaged the federal law preventing American businesses from bribing foreign officials, and enforcement of the law has plummeted under his administration. Trump is personally collecting large, undisclosed sums from domestic and foreign sources with a keen interest in currying his administration’s favor. And while it’s true that Hunter Biden was trading on his father’s name, all the Trump children are doing the same, and it barely attracts any attention given all the other scandals blotting it out.

The notion that Trump was legitimately interested in rooting out corruption in Ukraine is a transparent farce. Even if he’d somehow developed a genuine interest in tamping down corruption — an interest that runs counter to his entire business career and functioning as president — his handing off the task to Giuliani exposes the ruse. There are actual diplomatic channels that can be used to encourage foreign countries to investigate legitimate crimes. The president’s personal lawyer is not one of them.

And yet the Times’ willingness to lend credence to Giuliani’s smear campaign is hardly unique. Vogel this weekend called Hunter Biden’s history “a significant liability for Joe Biden.” A Washington Post headline noted, “Scrutiny over Trump’s Ukraine Scandal May Also Complicate Biden’s Campaign.”

That is true if you disassociate the role of the media in creating those perceptions and take those statements as pure predictions. Giuliani’s barely controlled performance on CNN with Chris Cuomo might have appeared like a failure of spin, but he succeeded in his primary goal of juxtaposing “Biden” with words like “corrupt” and “scandal” dozens of times over half an hour of airtime. The Clinton-email debacle proved that even third-rate Democratic peccadilloes can be decontextualized and turned into symbols of deep moral rot.

Giuliani explained on Fox News how the method can work. “It’s the only way you can get this out. The only way they would cover this story is by punching the president in the face, and then the president deflects the punch, which he’s done, the story came down, and then he hits with a right hand that’s more powerful.” Anything that results in the media’s raising questions about Democrats helps Trump, however minor or unfounded the questions may be.

The inexhaustible fire hose of Trumpian misconduct has only made this formula more effective. Trump’s supporters hold him to the lowest imaginable standard of conduct, while Democratic voters hold their leaders to fairly high standards. Trump’s base is almost immune to news of misconduct by him, while the Democratic base is highly sensitive to it. It’s therefore plausible for Trump to assume that a story that combines unsubstantiated allegations against people in his opponent’s orbit with massive, undisguised abuse of power by Trump himself is a net win.

Trump sent Giuliani to undertake a campaign so scurrilous that even Giuliani conceded the immorality from the outset. (“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said in May; “somebody could say it’s improper.”) He did so in the belief that Biden would ultimately sustain more damage. We will see if he was right.

How the Media Helped Trump Carry Out His Ukraine Smear