To the shock of absolutely no one, the Justice Department’s monthslong investigation of alleged Obama administration wrongdoing in “unmasking” Trump campaign officials whose identities had been redacted in intelligence reports turned up nothing. The only actual surprise here is that Attorney General Bill Barr didn’t hold off on closing the investigation until after next month's election, though that may simply be the result of U.S. Attorney John Bash’s departure from the Justice Department last week. (Bash led this investigation, but left without filing criminal charges or issuing a report.)
The investigation dates back to May, when then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell delivered a declassified document to Congress with a list of Obama administration officials who filed requests to reveal the names of Americans caught during international surveillance sweeps. Such requests are extremely common and generally uncontroversial -- the Trump administration has made thousands of these requests -- but Grenell’s delivery was clearly intended to give the impression that what he was sharing with Congress was part of a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the Obama administration to spy on Donald Trump’s campaign and entrap officials like Michael Flynn, who would go on to become Trump’s first national security adviser.
Trump has long used the Department of Justice as a personal goon squad to investigate his political rivals, and he certainly understands how even just the announcement of an investigation can help tarnish his opponents. This strategy predates Trump’s stranglehold over the Republican Party, as the drawn-out Benghazi investigation demonstrated. And though the DOJ’s “unmasking” probe didn’t result in any sweeping arrests or major indictments, it did succeed in giving the president’s self-serving narrative a lot of credulous headlines and misleading media coverage.
Right-wing media ran full steam ahead with the story, even if they weren’t entirely sure what the scandal actually was.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) released the list to the public on May 13, and the pro-Trump media feeding frenzy began in earnest. Trump appeared the next day on Fox Business, where he called unmasking “the greatest political crime in the history of our country” that would have come with “50-year sentences” had it been done by Republicans. In an interview with Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called Grenell’s list “a smoking gun” that supposedly proved former Vice President Joe Biden had abused the power of government to attack a political rival, and went on to claim that “unmasking someone is the equivalent of illegally wiretapping them.” Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett appeared on Fox & Friends to accuse Obama officials of “illegitimate spying.”
“Greatest political crime in the history of our country?” No. “The equivalent of illegally wiretapping them?” Also no. Trump had taken to tweeting about what he called “Obamagate,” which seemed to become something of a catch-all term for the wide world of conspiracy theories he had about the so-called “deep state” being out to get him. Asked what crime had been committed, specifically, Trump couldn’t elaborate, instead telling journalists, “You know what the crime is.”
There was no crime, and anyone paying even the tiniest bit of attention knew this. My colleague Matt Gertz referred to Grenell’s action here as a “noninformation campaign,” on account of the total lack of a coherent point. Even so, it’s to be expected from Fox News and others in the world of pro-Trump media.
However, Grenell’s presentation came one day after the Department of Justice moved to drop charges against Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the investigation into Russian election interference during the 2016 campaign. One instance when Flynn’s name was unmasked was a phone call with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period following the 2016 election; on the call, Flynn asked Kislyak not to respond to sanctions that had been recently imposed against Russia by the Obama administration.
Far too many mainstream news outlets took the right-wing bait and lent legitimacy to this sham by “privileging the lie.”
Let’s be real: Most people don’t read entire articles. In fact, most people don’t read the articles at all. According to a 2014 report from the American Press Institute, 59% of Americans don’t read anything other than headlines. Even among people who do click into articles, they’re probably not reading the whole thing. It’s a bit depressing, but it’s important for journalists to realize why they need to get key information up front and in their headlines if possible. All too often, important information gets buried where few will actually see it.
“Flynn case boosts Trump’s bid to undo Russia probe narrative,” reads the headline of an Associated Press article from May. The piece opens with Flynn being referred to as a “patriot” by Vice President Mike Pence, and the line, “The Justice Department’s move to dismiss the criminal case against Flynn marks another step in his transformation, in the eyes of Trump and his allies, from rogue adviser to victim of runaway law enforcement.” The piece describes the Trump administration’s call for an investigation into unmasking “a broader push by Trump and his Republican allies to reframe the Russia investigation as a ‘deep state’ plot to sabotage his administration.”
Although the next paragraph notes “that former law enforcement officials say [Trump's narrative] downplays the legitimate national security concerns they believe Flynn posed,” it’s not until the sixth paragraph that the piece points out how much of a sham Trump’s claims about the “deep state” are, quoting Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer as saying, “His goal is that by the end of this, you’re just not really sure what happened and at some gut level enough Americans say, ‘It’s kind of messy.’”
“Split-screen America is back: Whistleblower and Flynn case,” read another Associated Press headline, lending credence to the right-wing framing of the story:
On Fox News Channel, the bigger story was the revelation that Obama administration officials sought to “unmask” the identity of Trump adviser Michael Flynn, caught in surveillance reports having discussions with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration.
That story led Fox’s programs at 10 and 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m.
Shortly before Bright began his testimony, Fox was interviewing White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany about the Flynn story. She said “there are very real questions about what is the biggest political scandal in history.
“Every network should be covering this and right now it is getting scant coverage,” McEnany said.
It wasn’t until the 15th paragraph of the AP story that the piece acknowledged that unmasking “is considered a routine, and legal activity in government.”
“President Trump’s efforts to use the now-closed Russia inquiry as a campaign issue got a potential boost Wednesday with the release of a declassified document tangentially tying Joe Biden, his likely Democratic opponent, to the investigation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor,” reads the opening paragraph of the Los Angeles Times article, “Trump’s allies claim to see Biden’s hand in Flynn case.” It’s not until the fourth paragraph that the article includes the acknowledgement, “The declassified document does not show that Biden did anything improper, and it says the unmasking request was approved under normal procedures at the National Security Agency.”
Those are just a few of the many examples of mainstream media outlets failing to get critical information in a spot where their readers will actually see it. And all the while the outlets covered the president’s “Obamagate” conspiracy theory, they were hammered by pro-Trump media for not covering it enough. If the goal in front-loading the Republican messaging is some sort of play to appease right-wing media and their audiences, it’s not a very effective one.
Though the investigation closed without any substantial findings -- let alone the arrests of his “deep state” enemies -- Trump still came out of this with a media win.
Modern politics can be best understood as a battle for attention, something Trump happens to be very good at getting. For months, pro-Trump media outlets pounded away at the message that he was mistreated by the Obama administration and victim of the “greatest political crime” in U.S. history. Along the way, he got some sympathetic headlines in mainstream media outlets as well.
It doesn’t matter that there weren’t any actual crimes involved, but it’s enough of a victory that Trump might have been able to deflect some of the attention away from his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic or his own corruption.
The reason Trump and other Republicans continue to do this is because it works. Even though Trump would likely have been happy to see Biden in handcuffs, too much credulous mainstream coverage guaranteed he didn't come away totally empty-handed.