We met at a coffee shop in Bethesda. “We are fighting World War III right now. Only it’s a cyber-war and we’re losing it because this administration will not even admit Russia has hacked into dozens of countries to manipulate their elections,” the Department of Justice staffer, sitting across from me, explained.
Ready to quit federal service, he was beyond concern. He was despondent. “I work in this administration, and I’m responsible too by just being here.”
Those melodramatic statements are even more alarming in light of Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia by the Trump administration. As that stain continues to spread, apparently beyond Trump’s inner circle, members of Congress have grown increasingly concerned. Another worrisome factor is the recent revelation that Facebook sold political ads to a Russian troll farm–a move that Senator Mark Warner said was just “the tip of the iceberg.”
“Everywhere we look, we’re finding interference. It’s disturbing on many levels,” my source said.
A cloud of concern and suspicion still follows Donald Trump Jr. and his meeting with Russians prior to last year’s election. According to his own varying statements, Trump Jr. has apparently lied at least once about having the meeting, who was at the meeting, and the topic of the meeting.
Then there is the controversial firing of James Comey–a move that came back to bite the President in the rump again this week.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon said on CBS’s 60 Minutes President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may have been the biggest mistake in “modern political history.”
But twice this week, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders not only defended Comey’s firing as the correct decision, but she also suggested Comey should be investigated for criminal activity for leaking information. The Justice Department “should certainly look at,” prosecuting Comey, she said, while also simultaneously proclaiming that she wasn’t encouraging an investigation.
At least two more members of the Trump administration have lawyered-up this week, while Ty Cobb, the president’s personal attorney, apparently has his “hands full” trying to respond to questions from Mueller about the president.
“We will be transparent,” Sanders said in response to requests for information from the administration concerning the investigation. While many would argue transparency on Russia isn’t one of the administration’s bright spots, no one is addressing the larger question–partly because, according to members of Congress and investigators at the DOJ, the administration cannot.
‘A doctor can save a life, but a reporter can save a country.’
“How do you aggressively go after Russia for waging a cyber hacking war when you won’t even admit it happened?” my DOJ source asked. “It’s up to the press, and you guys aren’t doing your job either.”
On this, I disagree.
Friday at the National Press Club, the Alfred Friendly Press Partners graduated eight foreign press members from its fellowship program. Named for the former Washington Post editor and staged through the University of Missouri’s prestigious journalism program, the graduates all spoke about making a difference in a world beset with problems.
“I wanted to be a doctor at one time,” the Daniel Pearl Fellow Nicholas Cheng told the audience. “A doctor can save a life, but a reporter can save a country.”
The winner of the Susan Talalay award for Outstanding Journalism went to Yevgenia Albats, a Russian investigative reporter and the editor of The New Times magazine. She has weathered bribes, threats, and in her 1994 book, she outlined how the KGB is a leading political force, not a security organization. She told a captive audience how “journalistic corruption in Russia” led to the downfall of democratic reform and to the current Russian state, where dozens of journalists who stood against Vladimir Putin are now dead. Before the young, idealistic journalists, her speech stood as a stark reminder as to what we face in this country.
Our corruption is far more subtle than a $150,000 bribe offered to Albats—but it is just as dangerous to our democracy.
Standing up to the current administration is a daunting task. Each day, the administration pushes its narrative, including accusations of corruption leveled at Comey, former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Sanders wields these tools from the podium like blunt instruments intent on bashing the press and everyone else around. When she went after Clinton’s book, accusing the former First Lady of engaging in a false narrative and using questionable facts, she was begging for a heated response. When she said she thought Jemele Hill of ESPN should be fired, saying her remarks where “one of the more outrageous comments that anybody could make, and certainly is something that is a fireable offense by ESPN,” Sanders again put journalists on the defensive. Of course, it’s an affront to the First Amendment. Of course, Sanders has absolutely no business doing it. Of course, it stepped across the line. But in the past she’s been able to do it with impunity.
Make no mistake; Sanders is pushing a narrative crafted by the President and those closest to him which, at its heart, has the goal of admonishing those who ask hard questions. It may be all right to espouse what appears to be racist views, but it isn’t OK with the White House if someone calls you on it.
Those who push back against the narrative are growing. Sanders combats the media by bringing in guest speakers, arriving extremely late to press briefings, delaying press guidance announcements until the last minute, avoiding those in the press room she cannot count on to play by the rules she imposes, and frequently ending press briefings after less than a half an hour with a variety of excuses.
It isn’t working, but there are still a small number of reporters who are afraid to confront the administration–either out of fear of never being called upon again in a press briefing, losing their job, or their false perception of friendship with members of the administration.
These are the subtle ways in which journalists are being bribed in this country. It isn’t the brazen bribe, or the overt physical threat or even the threat of death. It’s the threat of losing your job and/or status.
These are the subtle ways in which journalists are bribed in this country.
It was both disturbing and heartening to see young foreign journalists wanting to risk it all in their home countries as they graduated last week—disturbing because it occurred to me very few of us speak with such passion in American journalism, but encouraging because all of the graduates cited American journalism and journalists as their inspiration.
We still have it and over the last two months I’ve seen the press working harder together to get answers. The despondent DOJ staffer who believes we’re involved in a cyber-war also should take heart. If it is true we are late to the game, at least we’re aware of it. We did not become despondent when Pearl Harbor was bombed. We became resolute. We had a purpose.
We have one now. We must stop the undermining of democracy and the destabilization of ours and other governments brought about by foreign meddling. Even members of the most friendly media outlets have resisted the administration’s grotesque attempts at subterfuge—and that is very encouraging. More encouraging is the fact that the pressure is building. The White House press corps has actually come alive and, with very few exceptions, is ignoring the bait while following the clues.
It is going to take every one of us—united—to conquer this very real threat. It isn’t a “witch hunt.” It isn’t “fake news”. But it is a very real threat, and we’re up to the challenge.