April 28, 2018

The Radical Center | The WSJ’s Trump Smokescreen

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By circulation, the Wall Street Journal is the most-read newspaper in America. The paper is a treasure trove of cogent financial-markets analysis. Its newsroom has broken historic stories on Enron, 9/11 and Bear Stearns. The Journal’s newsroom continues to drive the political news cycle with its pieces — such as, most recently, a story about an affair between the president and the then-inconspicuous porn star Stormy Daniels.

Civil War at the WSJ

Yet, thanks to one Mr. Donald Trump, the Journal is a paper in something of a midlife crisis. The Journal’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker (formerly a conservative pundit), has come under fire for an uncomfortably chummy interview with the Trumps. Last month, an internal company email accused Mr. Baker of yanking a news story for its liberal skew.

Stories about an internal “civil war” indicate that the Journal’s straight-news reporters are upset with the paper’s editorial board. The reporters’ consternation stems from the board’s apparent willingness to run editorials and op-eds that factually contradict the Journal’s own news coverage.

The Journal is owned by conservative bigwig Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the hard-right cable channel Fox News. After acquiring the Journal in 2007, Mr. Murdoch’s influence has been deeply felt. In October, Politico’s Jason Schwartz noted that multiple Murdoch-owned news outlets were, in near-perfect chorus, bashing Robert Mueller, the lawman investigating possible coordination between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Shortly thereafter, the Journal editorial board put out a bizarre editorial condemning Mr. Schwartz’s article for quoting a source with potential conflicts of interest. Such “political incestuousness” and “dishonest reporting,” the editorial argued, were reasons why “so few Americans trust the Washington press corps.” The editorial did not substantively rebut Mr. Schwartz’s article, nor did it comment on the piece’s other two sources, both former Journal staffers.

Distractions and Diversions

This is the editorial board’s tactic of choice: distract, divert and cast doubt. For several months last year, the board filled its columns with calls for Mr. Mueller to resign, on the grounds that he could not credibly investigate a corrupt FBI.

The board’s reasoning, first articulated in an October editorial, alleged that the FBI used a “discredited” dossier to launch an investigation into possible Trump-Russia ties. This dossier — which has in fact been partially corroborated — cited Kremlin-linked Russians as sources and was financed by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The board asserted the need for a new investigation into “collusion” between the Clinton campaign, the FBI and Russia. Mr. Mueller, they argued, lacked the “critical distance” to investigate the FBI (he headed the agency for 12 years) and should thus resign.

As I wrote in November, the editorial board’s argument was highly speculative and mostly baseless. And indeed, a December report in the New York Times undercut the board’s central claim: that the FBI used the aforementioned dossier to launch a probe into the Trump campaign.

The Times report found that intelligence about a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, was passed on to the U.S. government by Australia. Speaking to an Australian diplomat over drinks, Mr. Papadopoulos reportedly revealed that Russia had damaging information on Mrs. Clinton. The FBI then used those revelations as the pretext for probing the Trump campaign. The dossier did not prompt the FBI to open its investigation.

In the wake of this Times report, the Journal editorial board’s already-flimsy argument collapsed. And other than attempting to cast doubt on the Times piece, the board largely quieted down on smearing Mr. Mueller. They instead set their sights on another story involving secret surveillance courts, a one-time Trump campaign aide, and alleged wiretapping. I’ll spare you that tale.

Guess Who’s Back

But now, the board is back with a brand-new Mueller editorial, the subheader of which begins, “Trump shouldn’t fire Mueller.” So their position, it seems, is that Mr. Mueller should resign, but Mr. Trump should not fire him.

Muddying the waters further, Mr. Trump over the weekend tweeted: “Kim Strassel of the WSJ just said, after reviewing the dumb [fired FBI director James] Comey Memos, ‘you got to ask, what was the purpose of the Special Counsel [referring to Mr. Mueller]? There’s no there there.’ ”


Mr. Trump was just slightly paraphrasing. Mrs. Strassel, an editorial board member, appeared on the board’s weekend TV gabfest, the “Journal Editorial Report,” which airs on Fox News. She argued, “You’ve got to ask here what was the basis for a special counsel [referring to Mr. Mueller], because there’s not a lot there, even in all of these long memos [written by Mr. Comey].”

The memos in discussion were written in early 2017 by Mr. Comey, then the FBI director, after several encounters with Mr. Trump. The president asked for Mr. Comey’s “loyalty” in an FBI investigation into one of Mr. Trump’s campaign advisers, Michael Flynn, who lied about his conversations with a top Russian diplomat.

A few months later, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey. The next day, the president admitted in a TV interview that he had sacked Mr. Comey over the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation. The notion that the Trump campaign could have illicit ties to Russian agents was a “made-up story,” Mr. Trump fumed.

What Mrs. Strassel is forgetting — surprising for someone who covers this story for a living — is that Mr. Mueller was appointed precisely because Mr. Trump dismissed Mr. Comey. The firing had nothing to do with the Comey memos, which did not come to light until after Mr. Comey was fired. The Mueller investigation exists because the man whom the FBI was investigating (Mr. Trump) fired the investigator (Mr. Comey) — on the explicit grounds that Mr. Comey was investigating potential Trump-Russia coordination.

Clearing the Smoke

There’s a lot going on; let’s take stock. The Journal editorial board has argued that Mr. Mueller’s probe has no basis, that it is compromised and that he should resign. Yet he should not be fired. The board’s members go on TV to run interference for the president. He tweets back his approval.

The editorial board’s arguments are inconsistent and without substance, meant to confuse and disorient. The board does not admit error or correct itself when its distortions are exposed for what they are. They instead find some new scandal, some new concocted controversy with which to fill their pages. They are, in short, intellectually bankrupt.

But the president seems giddy to tweet out in support of whomever is defending him on TV. If his defenders appear as disingenuous sycophants to anyone outside of the garden of willful ignorance that is Fox News, so be it. The Trump presidency is not about policy or persuasion — or even about politics. It is about unwavering loyalty to Mr. Trump, the man.

That the Journal editorial board, a long-standing bastion of conservative thought, is now squarely in the president’s corner is emblematic of the full Trumpification of the Republican Party. In the process, the party is alienating the reasonable right and the moderate middle. Polling data indicate a looming electoral wipeout for the GOP. Politician, elect thyself.