As far as most of President Donald Trump’s critics are concerned, his supporters are united by one common characteristic: an indifference to the truth. Along the lines of Salena Zito’s famous insight, they take him seriously but not literally. That means they are often indifferent to the accuracy of his boasts and accusations because they think the context and the general meaning of his sentiments are what matter, not the details. His detractors consider this a sign that Trump’s rise has heralded a post-factual age in which truth and the future of democracy are being sacrificed on the altar of his celebrity and the resentment his supporters harbor against the political establishment.
But it turns out the smart people who look down their noses at Trump’s fans can be guilty of the same sin. Like the president’s populist fan base, the anti-Trump “resistance,” including it’s mainstream-media wing, is just as indifferent to the plain meaning of words and published facts when it comes to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
When presented on Monday with the indictments of Robert Manafort and Robert Gates and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, the president’s opponents — including virtually every talking head heard throughout the day on CNN and MSNBC — chose to ignore the facts and, instead, jump to wild conclusions about conspiracies and the guilt of the president that have little if anything to do with the facts of the specific cases. If the narrative of collusion wasn’t backed up by what Mueller actually produced, then as far as Trump’s foes were concerned, the facts didn’t matter.
While no one can be sure what the next steps in this legal and political tangle will involve, the impact of Monday’s events did little to advance the collusion narrative. Manafort and Gates were indicted on money-laundering and other charges wholly unconnected to the Trump campaign that the former led and the latter worked for last summer. Papadopoulos’s guilty plea to charges of lying to federal agents was related to contacts he had with a Russian. But as much as he might have been interested in getting the “dirt” he was offered by that Russian, who was apparently working on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s government, no meeting or exchange ever took place. The Trump campaign, in which Papadopoulos took part as a member of an advisory council that met once, did not act on his information and seemed to discourage his actions as much as condoning them. If there was any real collusion with Russia, then it had nothing to do with the charges revealed Monday.
But that didn’t stop much of the media — and in particular the cable-news channels — from characterizing Monday’s news as the beginning of the end for Trump. Like his supporters, who think they know what he means even when he says things that are blatantly untrue or specious, Trump’s opponents treated Mueller’s announcements as confirmation of what they assume to be true even if there was no objective reason to do so.
One example was New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s “The Plot against America,” which treated Manafort’s consulting work for a Ukrainian ally of Moscow as proof of collusion. Never mind that it was proof of no such thing — Goldberg, who had previously written that the lack of any high crimes and misdemeanors on Trump’s part should be no impediment to impeaching him, had a narrative to sell.
While no one can be sure what the next steps in this legal and political tangle will involve, the impact of Monday’s events did little to advance the collusion narrative.
Another was the widespread assumption that the indictments of Manafort and Gates would lead them to “sing” to prosecutors about Trump’s crimes. What crimes? No one really knows. But that didn’t stop writers like the Times’ Nicholas Kristof from speculating that Manafort would give Mueller the president to gain leniency. Both legal experts and pundits gleefully spouted the same line all day not just as a possibility but as a virtual certainty.
In the same manner, they inflated Papadopoulos’s emails into a conspiracy involving Trump, assuming again that in the months since his secret indictment, he had been able to converse with and possibly tape proof of guilt offered by unsuspecting associates, despite the fact that there is no proof he has been in touch with Trump, his family, or anyone of importance in the administration. Papadopoulos’s existence was rarely if ever noted during throughout 2016 — an anonymity that was justified by his lowly status in the Trump campaign — yet he is now heralded as a major player by the same outlets that previously ignored him, simply because he offers a way to further the collusion narrative.
To note the disconnect between these assumptions and the facts is not to deny the seriousness of Russian attempts to interfere in the election or of the crimes Manafort and Gates are accused of committing. Nor does it erase any of Trump’s all-too-obvious misstatements and faults. But what Mueller’s announcements have done is to reveal that any supposition that can somehow be shoehorned into a narrative about collusion, treason, and criminal conduct on Trump’s part is being treated by much of the media as a given rather than as pure speculation motivated by partisan animus.
Journalists insist that the assertion by Trump and his supporters that they publish and broadcast “fake news” is a partisan libel that ignores the hard, honest work they do. But the last days have at the very least highlighted media bias against Trump. Rather than doubling down on their certainty that the president’s days are numbered, reporters should look back at much of what has been produced this week and ponder whether their inability to distinguish between wishful thinking about his demise and the facts makes them more like his supporters than they’d like to admit.