For years, I condemned the press for turning a blind eye to the obviously unconstitutional surveillance of the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. One problem with journalists turning a blind eye to unconstitutional spying, of course, is that they squander their credibility when it’s their turn to complain about being the target of spying. So when CNN (among other outlets) recently revealed that in 2017, the Justice Department spied on the phone records of reporters, they had a consistency problem. History needed revision. Let’s remember how the modern politically corrupted press covers spying on their political opponents.
Writing for Vanity Fair in 2018, Abigail Tracy mocked Republican reaction to the “Nunes Memo” which revealed government spying on the Trump campaign. She wrote, “They were referring to a memo compiled by G.O.P. Congressman Devin Nunes, which allegedly revealed abuses of surveillance power by key members of the Justice Department and F.B.I., including James Comey, his former deputy Andrew McCabe, and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Yet when the memo itself was revealed to the public, it turned out to be such a hopeless dud that the conspiracy around it dissipated almost immediately,” adding that the spygate theory was, “the president’s newest pet theory, [and] perhaps his most desperate attempt yet to discredit Robert Mueller.”
Tracy clucked with disappointment that Rosenstein would allow himself to be “strong-armed by Trump’s escalating tantrums” by asking the inspector general to investigate. But the 2019 inspector general report did confirm that the Justice Department spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Vanity Fair, like so many other publications, published its “debunking” of Trump’s spy theory with parsed language, i.e. that the Justice Department didn’t insert a spy “into” the Trump campaign. It was an indication that the media followed the precise script leaked from sources from within the Justice Department itself. The inspector general highlighted how Justice Department officials ran several informants and electronically spied on Carter Page. But the press kept America in the dark at the time by using carefully worded but patently deceptive denials from the Justice Department.
Mainstream news outlets all take the same angle on the new “spying on journalists” scandal, so a sample from Salon is sufficient to illustrate. “Trump’s Justice Department Spied on at Least Five Reporters,” the headline screeches. Salon implies that Trump himself directed this spying as part of a larger effort to suppress free speech. Trump, according to Salon, “loathed” the press and, “if he’d gotten a second term, probably would have made it illegal for news organizations to publish anything less than the glowiest of glowing stories about him and how he was the greatest president to ever live.”
The idea is completely dishonest and absurd.
Let’s start with the fact that President Trump had little or no control over the Department of Justice from the very outset of his term. The message, “It was the Trump Justice Department,” is exactly the kind of deep state PR message that deflects blame. There never was a “Trump Justice Department.”
In early 2017, Rod Rosenstein, supposedly the deputy attorney general, seized control of most Justice Department operations after Trump’s attorney general recused himself that May. Rosenstein then appointed the special counsel who tormented Trump for most of his term. This made Rosenstein effectively untouchable until after the 2018 midterm elections. Rosenstein mocked Congress and defied the president. Any direct order from Trump to spy on a reporter would have been immediately leaked and defied.
Second, the CNN story to which Salon refers admits that we still don’t know why the Justice Department spied on some of these reporters. So Salon immediately reports, without any evidence, that it must have been Trump’s antipathy towards the free press. CNN noted, “The Justice Department did not say why Starr’s communications were being sought. During the two-month timeframe listed in the letter, Starr reported on U.S. military options in North Korea that were ready to be presented to Trump, as well as stories on Syria and Afghanistan.”
CNN (correctly) chides, “Free speech and government transparency advocates warn that the seizure of journalists’ records has a chilling impact on newsgathering and discourages whistleblowers from coming forward with government wrongdoing.” Yes, and spying on political campaigns chills opposition candidates. Pretty hard to have a democracy without opposition candidates.
This story is yet another example of the media coordinating a message for the benefit of the Justice Department and the deep state generally, i.e. calling it a “Trump Justice Department” scandal. CNN, Salon, the Washington Post, the Intercept, and others have all stuck with that message. Never mind that such coordination might be illegal. The Justice Department’s guidance on the Sherman Antitrust Act provides, “newspapers are required to retain separate editorial and reporting staffs and to determine their editorial policies independently.” One wonders how supposedly independent competitors can so obviously coordinate their storytelling without running afoul of federal law. But one should remember that coordination never seems to be illegal when it benefits the Justice Department.