BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I'm Bob Garfield.
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BOB GARFIELD: The president insisted for two years that it was all a hoax or whatever.
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PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: Phony Russia witch hunt. That's all we hear about.
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: Collusion with Russia. The collusion delusion.
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: And they said I have an idea let's blame Russia. That was hoax, it was all a big hoax. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: So naturally with the report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election finished and no new charges filed, I guess this was inevitable.
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: The collusion delusion is over. Total exoneration. Complete vindication. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, actually yes. There was vindication Thursday with the release of Robert Mueller's report. Vindication of the media whose reporting was proved by Mueller to have been right all along. Beginning with the accounts of intelligence consensus on Russian meddling–which not long ago, standing alongside Vladimir Putin, Trump was still dismissing.
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russian. I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: When the press passed along leaks about Trump asking then FBI Director James Comey to go easy on fired aide Michael Flynn, Trump tweeted quote 'I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more fake news covering another Comey lie.' But in volume two, page 44, Mueller says quote, 'Despite those denials, substantial evidence corroborates Comey's account.' Here's a Trump tweet from May 31st, 2018. Quote, 'not that it matters, but I never fired James Comey because of Russia. The corrupt mainstream media loves to keep pushing that narrative but they know it's not true,' exclamation point. Mueller debunks his denials on page four of volume two. In part by citing the president's own words in his famous interview with NBC News Lester Holt. And when the New York Times reported Trump was trying to get Mueller himself fired.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Mr President, did you seek to fire Mueller?
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: Fake news, folks. Fake news. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: But in volume two pages 77 to 90, we learned that White House counsel Don McGahn corroborated the story to Mueller’s team.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Let me read from the Mueller report. Substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the president directed Don McGahn as White House counsel to call Rosenstein, who we know is Muellers' boss, to have the special counsel removed. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Want to call the Russia probe a witch hunt? Fine. But gosh, so many witches. Thirty-four individuals indicted including six former Trump advisers. Seven people, including five from the Trump team, pleading guilty. Twelve sealed criminal referrals outstanding. Plus now, new confirmation of nefarious activity previously denied. One, Trump campaign officials, including his own son and son-in-law seeking dirt on Hillary from a Russian emissary. That's volume one pages 110 to 122. Two, Trump orchestrating lies about that meeting–volume two pages 103 to 106. Three, Trump leaning on then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself and redirect the investigation toward Hillary Clinton–volume two page 107. And four, Trump having advance knowledge of a WikiLeaks stolen email dump–volume 2 pages 51 to 57. All of the above long since reported, all denied by the White House, all documented in the most indicting report ever to yield no new indictments. If that's fake news Mr. Trump, please tell me where can I subscribe?
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BOB GARFIELD: Apart from sniffing out the trail of deviance, how else to evaluate the years of coverage and the pitfalls of such speculative reporting? OTM actually got a head start on that question with the help of Eric Umansky deputy managing editor at ProPublica and co-host of Trump, Inc–a podcast co-produced by ProPublica and WNYC. Back in early March, he helped us prepare a breaking news consumer handbook Mueller investigation edition. And we're going to revisit it now to see how prescient his analysis was–spoiler alert, very. Eric, welcome back to the show.
ERIC UMANSKY: Hey Bob, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's begin with your very first observation. Collusion isn't the whole story, there were 50 shades of corruption.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: Put another way, the special counsel found no collusion of the Trump campaign collusion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: No underlying collusion with Russia.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: So it isn't the whole story but certain interested parties seem to be spinning it that way.
PRES DONALD J. TRUMP: I'm having a good day too. It was called, no collusion no obstruction.
CROWD: [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
ERIC UMANSKY I mean even the Mueller report put scare quotes around the word collusion. That's because there's no crime called collusion. But the truth is there is a lot the president did and his people have done that has been questionable and conflicted. That is just not about collusion. It's a different thing. So I feel like whether Trump intended it or not, it's turned into a massive bit of misdirection.
BOB GARFIELD: In the handbook point three, you asked quote 'has the reporter seen the evidence? That's key especially when the story relies on unnamed sources.' Now you've identified an important part of the Mueller report. That's page 143 of volume two for those of you scoring at home. It involves Michael Cohen's testimony and a Washington Post story that foreshadowed it.
ERIC UMANSKY: Right. So this is a fascinating bit, and the report doesn't dwell on it too much, but it does make a brief reference to a few weeks before Cohen gave his testimony before Congress–which he later admitting he perjured himself. Right, he lied to Congress. Mueller points out that Cohen was a source for a Washington Post story that if you read it at the time it looked like this quite damning thing.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Washington Post reporting that the Trump Organization was pursuing a development deal in Moscow as Trump was running for president in 2015 and early 2016. [END CLIP]
ERIC UMANSKY: The Mueller report notes that Michael Cohen was a source for that story. The story also includes the line that Michael Cohen declined to comment for this story. That is a eyebrow raising thing. As a reporter, it's not a great place to be where you're saying we're not quoting a person. And in fact you are relying on them anonymously.
BOB GARFIELD: OK. Let's go to point seven: the public may never see Mueller's complete findings. Well, Barr kept his word and made the redacted report public and a less redacted version available to congressional leaders of both parties. But, oh those colored bars of redaction.
ERIC UMANSKY: We actually at ProPublica did a count. The percentage of the report that is redacted is 6 percent. So by a percentage, that's not very large. The problem of course is we don't know what's in that 6 percent. There are whole pages that are redacted. So it's very much a trust the attorney general situation we're in right now. And I think you are going to have challenges about that. And I don't think that that is going to be a thing that is resolved particularly quickly.
BOB GARFIELD: Well on that very point the handbook point eight: the press may confuse Mueller's whole report with Barr's summary. Well, I guess for the past few weeks the attorney general's conclusions, that four page summary has been the center of the coverage. I guess because it's all we've had to work with.
ERIC UMANSKY: What it really was truly is an exercise in spin. It was very similar to the press conference that Barr had this morning. And that I think journalists were much more skeptical of. You're having a press conference about a thing that we haven't seen yet. And then there's an hour or two wait until you see the thing itself for what reason. I mean, it wasn't a logistical thing they could decide to do these things any anytime they wanted. It was to allow a moment for the spin to seep in. And we didn't fall for it here because we also knew, well at 11:00 we're getting the real thing. So why do we have to pay attention to this? We were so desperate, as you were just mentioning, for information, for some sign that we over interpreted. But that was a mistake.
BOB GARFIELD: Point nine: the Mueller probe is no deus ex machina. It's not his job to uncover it all.
ERIC UMANSKY: A lot of people have noted, at the very end of the report, there are 12 blacked out referrals for indictments that the Mueller team has passed on to other prosecutors. And we know that there are a lot of other active investigations going on that Mueller didn't even get into at all–about hush money payments, about the inauguration. And that's only for potentially criminal conduct. Then you have this whole question of, you know, this was not structurally a kind of 9/11 report or a commission report that was meant to tell the whole story. Mueller had a job and the job was to be a prosecutor and to explore this question of national security threats to the election. It was literally not his job to tell the whole story and he didn't. And so there is, almost assuredly, more coming.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one last question not actually covered in the handbook. One of the common criticisms of press coverage, including criticism from this very show, was that Mueller obsession dominated the news to the exclusion of the actual ongoing activities of the administration that will have deep and lasting implications for the society. That we were so distracted by this morality tale of Russia-gate that we neglected more consequential stories. What's your thought?
ERIC UMANSKY: Somebody was pointing out if we were to not have had two years of reporting and revelations and you were just to read this thing cold, I mean, it is astounding. And I think it would be a mistake to say, 'well, gee it's all simply no criminal referral and let's pack up and go home. And it's, you know, no big deal.' I think that's a mistake. At the same time, you have to absolutely look what's going on in the administration.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. And one follow up. What is going on with administration attorney?
ERIC UMANSKY: Haha.
BOB GARFIELD: Haha, don't answer that. Eric thank you.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Umansky is the deputy managing editor at ProPublica and cohost of Trump, Inc–A podcast produced by ProPublica and, our very own, WNYC.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when the do-badders buy reputations as do gooders. This is On The Media.