The Trump administration and its allies are working diligently to turn a story about the president's abuse of power into a story about alleged corruption by one of his political opponents. The only way they'll get away with it is if media outlets give them a hand.
Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, is a central figure in the president’s alleged plot, spearheading what he himself describes as a morally questionable effort to convince Ukrainian prosecutors to reopen an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a company linked to the son of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. He has further asserted that the then-vice president’s 2016 effort to force the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor Victor Shokin had been a corrupt intervention intended to benefit his son. But Biden was acting in response to widespread international criticism of Shokin’s lax anticorruption efforts, and the investigation into Burisma had reportedly been shuttered for more than a year at the time.
The Ukraine story, dormant in recent months, is now front-and-center after media reports and Trump’s responses established that he personally pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden during a July 25 phone call, at a time when he was also withholding U.S. aid to that country. That chilling abuse of power triggered a whistleblower complaint which a top Trump appointee subsequently blocked from reaching the appropriate congressional oversight committees, in possible violation of the law. That in turn revived calls for Trump’s impeachment.
According to Giuliani, this is all going according to plan.
“It’s the only way you can get this out,” he explained during a Monday morning Fox Business interview with Maria Bartiromo. “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 has come way down from where it was and then he hits them with a right hand that’s more powerful.”
There’s a certain amount of post-facto justification here. The best-case scenario for Trump and Giuliani was certainly getting Ukrainian prosecutors to reopen the investigation without this uproar. But Giuliani’s comments explicitly establish that Trump is counting on the press to help his smear campaign by flooding the zone with reporting that suggests there’s something to it -- a high-risk strategy but one that might work given the way reporting on scandals tends to metastasize.
As Giuliani indicates, he had been having little luck getting the press to cover the Ukraine story he wanted told. That’s because his version was nonsense.
But when Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel reported on the story in a May report for The New York Times, they were rightly criticized for waiting until the 19th paragraph to acknowledge there is “no evidence” to support the central allegation against Biden -- and for failing to grasp that the real story they had uncovered was the Trump team’s role in pressuring the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. But the story largely receded from the headlines aside from a couple of blips when Giuliani planned, and then canceled, a trip to Ukraine to press the newly elected government over the probe and when Mendel was hired as Zelensky’s spokesperson.
But last week, the revelations of gross impropriety and possible criminal behavior by the president and his associates thrust the story back into the spotlight. And the media’s behavior will determine whether what Giuliani now paints as a cynical and deliberate maneuver to revive the Biden story will succeed. The early signs are mixed.
On the positive side of the ledger, we wouldn’t know about the whistleblower complaint or have the details of Trump’s call with Zelensky without strong reporting from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. And much of the print and television journalism I’ve seen since (outside of Fox News) has noted at some point that the allegations against Biden are without merit while keeping the gravity of the president’s actions central to the story. “Over the past few days, reporting first by The Washington Post and later by other organizations has provided the outline of a disturbing story,” the Post’s Dan Balz wrote in a foreboding article that put the story squarely in context. “Unless there is substantial countering information, it portrays a president abusing his powers purely for political gain.”
But some false equivalence has started to break through, as reporters have turned their attention from Trump’s abuse of power to the political fallout. “Scrutiny over Trump’s Ukraine scandal may also complicate Biden’s campaign,” read one Post headline Friday. “Why Trump’s Ukraine scandal could backfire on Biden,” read another from Politico.
Such stories make sense only “if you disassociate the role of the media in creating those perceptions and take those statements as pure predictions,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait noted. In other words, if journalists incorporate Trump’s debunked allegations into the narrative of Biden’s campaign, it will likely create a false impression of corruption.
Some reports, like this one from the Times, never explicitly point out that Trump’s smear against Biden is baseless. Others, like these from the Journal and USA Today, eventually acknowledged there is no evidence to support Trump’s claims about Biden, but only did so deep in the report. This form of privileging the lie primes the reader to believe there might be something to an allegation that the reporter knows is baseless. By contrast, a similar Post story noted in its second paragraph that “no evidence has surfaced that Biden acted inappropriately and Trump’s allies did not provide any,” clearly conveying to readers at the top how they should weigh the smear.
Some mainstream media outlets have also passed along Trump’s dubious and baseless claims on their Twitter accounts without context, continuing a long-running pattern of spreading his misinformation in this way.
Giuliani appears to believe that the sheer volume of coverage being generated will inevitably cement “Biden” and “corruption” together. After Bartiromo said Monday that the press is “not covering Biden, what Biden did to China and the Ukraine,” he responded, “Yes, they are. Every one of the newspapers had articles about it.”
Meanwhile, Trump himself has been eagerly pushing the media to pivot and scrutinize Biden, exhorting people to “look at what Biden did,” tweeting that Biden’s purported actions are “the real story,” and denouncing journalists for “protect[ing]” him. He likely assumes that at best, his ref-working will push journalists into spending more time on Biden, and at worst, it will inflame his base and further condition them not to believe damaging stories about him.
Either way, it’s impossible to take seriously Trump’s stated claim that he is doing this because he is deeply concerned with corruption. He built his fortune on dodgy tax schemes, has a long track record associating with organized crime figures, bragged on the campaign trail about buying off politicians, and as president reportedly criticized the federal law that prevents U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials.
And yet, some journalists seem willing to play on Trump’s terms. The Times’ Vogel said on MSNBC this Friday that Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work is “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding, “There is a story here.” The next day, Trump tweeted out the clip, commenting, “This is the real and only story!”
Unfortunately, recent history suggests that many journalists will believe (or pretend to believe) Republicans who claim to be deeply concerned in such cases. That’s the mechanism that helped turn the obscure issue of email management into the biggest story of the last presidential cycle (it promptly receded following Trump’s election, and his administration has been rife with people engaging in such behavior). It remains to be seen if journalists have learned anything from this.
Giuliani is hoping that they haven’t. “There’s a lot more evidence I’m going to put out,” he told Bartiromo. “I put one out for today, money laundering. I’ve got a bigger one for tomorrow, a bigger one for the day after.”