January 25, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump’s Crimes Are in Plain Sight
Our children will ask, "How did the scandal go on for so long?"
Roger Stone, a former Donald Trump advisor, was arrested this morning after being indicted for witness tampering, among other crimes. News of his arrest is getting wall-to-wall attention from the networks, as it should. But what accounts for the difference between today’s coverage and Wednesday’s—when Michael Cohen cited threats the president made to his wife and her family as reason for canceling scheduled congressional testimony. That news barely registered. It’s worth asking why.
I’m not the first to suggest that decades from now, after this is over, our children will look back at the present moment in history, and ask: how in God’s name did the Donald Trump Scandal go on for so long? Most crimes were committed for anyone to see if they were paying attention. How could people see them but not admit they were seeing them? It’s as if the country suffered from a temporary fit of blindness.
I don’t have all the answers, obviously, but I do have some understanding of newsgathering. The short answer is fear. The news media, especially CNN, is scared of the power of the radical right. The Republicans inhabit a right-wing media universe that can (and I’m not kidding when I say this) bend reality. Only by first understanding this context can we understand the difference between Wednesday and today.
All the news about Stone’s arrest will be based on an indictment that sane people trust was grounded in fact and an impartial criminal investigation. So if a reporter says Stone allegedly tampered with a witness, she can deflect accusations of bias by pointing to the Special Counsel’s Office. In a sense, much of a reporter’s daylight hours are spent saying things like this: “Don’t blame me! I’m just the messenger!”
The same cannot be said of the Cohen story. It was not grounded in fact or a criminal investigation. It was grounded in seeing something happen out in the open, but being too afraid of saying what you saw, because saying what you saw is dangerous.
To recap, Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney, was scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7. Cohen was convicted of nine felonies, including lying to the US Congress in order to conceal negotiations that took place deep into the presidential election to build a Trump Tower Moscow.
Cohen announced Wednesday he would not appear before the House panel due to threats Trump made against his wife and her family. (The Senate Intelligence Committee later subpoenaed him.) These threats took place in public forums, on Twitter and on Fox News, where Trump said that Cohen’s father-in-law “is a very rich guy, I hear.” He added: “Did [Cohen] make a deal to keep his father-in-law out [of trouble]? Did he make a deal to keep his wife, who supposedly, maybe I’m wrong, but you can check it, did he make a deal to keep his wife out of trouble?”
By any measure, that’s witness tampering—issuing threats to prevent someone from telling the truth. It was all out in the open. If we were in a war zone in a foreign country, no reporter would mistrust her own eyes. But we live in this country, where people like Matt Drudge can wield incredible power by merely hinting that the FBI raid on Stone’s house was staged for the benefit of television cameras, thus “confirming” delusions that the president is a victim of the “Deep State.”
Trump tampered with Cohen’s testimony, yet news coverage did not rise to the level of today’s coverage, nor did it rise to the level of last week’s coverage of the Buzzfeed article alleging that Trump personally instructed Cohen to lie to the Congress. Laurence Tribe rightly asked on Twitter: Why did Buzzfeed story about Trump’s subornation of perjury cause a tsunami while his witness tampering in plain view causes only a ripple? This is an even more serious crime (20 yrs v 5 yrs). Looks like only hidden POTUS crimes shock people. Crimes in plain view, not so much.”
The problem isn’t desensitization. The problem is fear.
CNN and other news media were not going to say what they plainly saw, because to say what they plainly saw exposes them to accusations of bias by a right-wing media universe that will hurl such accusations no matter how grounded in fact the news is. In the case of Buzzfeed’s story, the news media can point to Buzzfeed. In the case of Roger Stone’s arrest, the news media can point to Robert Mueller’s office.
It’s crazy, but there is some solace we can take. Our children may look back and say: Aha! Justice won in the end! The news media might have been afraid to say the president tampered with a witness in front of our eyes. But the FBI arrested Roger Stone for witness-tampering, setting the scene for a similar end for Trump.
I think so. I think that’s the big takeaway from today’s news. (Along with Stone being the link between the Trump campaign, Wikileaks and the Russians.) More important to the pursuit of a justice is that Stone is said to have forced a witness to lie to Congress to prevent Stone’s connection to Wikileaks from coming to light.
The news media, and therefore everyone else, is not going to say Donald Trump tampered with a witness until Mueller alleges that the president did just that.
That’s when the news media will find the courage to report the news.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.