It’s tough to be an investigative reporter. Everybody who feeds you a tip has an axe to grind. Or, alternatively, you find yourself going, “I wonder if . . . ?” You put in your research, you talk to lots of people, you accumulate a huge pile of information, but you still haven’t proved your hypothesis. A wise reporter says to herself either “I don’t have the story yet” or “I guess this didn’t pan out.” In either event, she doesn’t publish. More likely, since reporters always think they have the story and always want to publish, an editor says, “Kid, you haven’t got the story.”
One of the many rules of the road that have changed in the Trump era is that reporters have taken to blasting out their BREAKING NEWS about scandals that they haven’t actually proven to be scandals. There is so much hay to be made during this administration, so many reporters are becoming superstars, so many comfy houses in Bethesda are being bought with so many large book deals. Any fresh angle you can find on the iniquity of the administration is going to be lapped up eagerly by everyone you know. But what if your new angle isn’t . . . actually. . . the truth?
Danger lurks. It’s damned annoying how many watchmen there are to watch the watchmen these days. But in the end the temptation wins. The shaky story gets blasted out to everyone, it falls apart, and the soiled and tattered reputation of the news media acquires another stain. Short term, no biggie: Reporters know they won’t get fired for being wrong. They get a little dopamine hit of glory from the ersatz scoop, they go on with their lives. They live to fight Trumpism another day. Did Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed suffer for falsely reporting that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress? Nope. Their position is merely that maybe the story will turn out to be true someday. They haven’t even retracted the story, much less tendered their resignations, much less placed themselves in the stocks of the town square so that passersby can fire tomatoes at them. (BuzzFeed appended a weaselly note to the original story feebly expressing hope that more information would emerge that would back up their story. That ain’t how it works. You get it right first, then publish.)
Politico reporters Natasha Bertrand and Bryan Bender suspect President Trump has been directing Air Force flights to an obscure Scottish airport and fuel stop in order to generate business for his nearby hotel. Since the Obama-era Air Force also used the fuel point (which Trump has no interest in) scores of times, and since those troops also understandably stayed at the hotel because it’s affordable and close to the airport, there is only a scandal here if Trump, or someone operating at Trump’s direction, is ordering the Air Force to do things differently than it ordinarily would in order to benefit Trump. The numbers at issue here are paltry. The hotel is charging $130 a night. How much of that winds up in Trump’s pocket, 11 cents? Bender and Bertrand inform us in dire tones that Air Force crews have made “at least four stays” at the Trump resort in the last year. How much do four stays at a cheap hotel really mean to a billionaire?
When Politico or any other outlet whips up a fake scandal, the predictable next stage is that even more specious and disgusting things get said by pundits joining the pile-on. Rachel Maddow, in her gonzo throw-everything-at-the-wall way, falsely claimed the other night that the fuel stop was charging more for fuel, as though that were a scandal. It turns out the fuel stop is charging ordinary rates, and Trump doesn’t own it anyway. John Hirschauer calls B.S. on her. Maddow slandered the military in an absolutely vile manner when she declared the “U.S. military is in on it now,” meaning corruption. Bertrand called Maddow’s take on the matter “perfect.”
Here’s how this story ought to be reported. If Trump ordered the Air Force to prop up his failing resort, there must be a long chain of intermediaries who took this directive from the president and passed it down the line. Find one of those flunkies and get him to spill the beans. Did Bender and Bertrand do so? No. Do they even exist? Until Bertrand and Bender find them and get them to talk, the story isn’t there. Yet Bertrand blathers on this morning with this tweet: “BREAKING: Preliminary results of the Air Force’s review of its use of Trump Turnberry shows that the service has lodged crews at the resort up to 40 times since 2015, a figure far higher than previously known.” Oh, since 2015, eh? Who was president then? The only numbers that might matter are the ones since January 20, 2017, and she doesn’t even have those yet. You might as well run a headline saying, “Hate crimes surged in Trump Era, or Obama Era, Maybe Both, Whatever, We’re Not Sure.”
Bertrand and Bryan’s own story undercuts the scandal suggested by her tweet: “The figure does not indicate how many of the stays have occurred since Trump became president. But the Air Force has significantly ramped up its overnight stops in Scotland under Trump after signing a contract with the Prestwick Airport — situated 20-plus miles from Turnberry — in the waning months of the Obama administration.” The Obama-era Air Force made deals with the airport near Turnberry and this somehow earns Trump a flag for violating the emoluments clause? True, there are more Air Force flights refueling at the little airport these days, but there are perfectly plausible reasons for that: Unlike Shannon Airport in Ireland, it’s got relatively good weather and is a low-traffic spot. Easy in, easy out. This argument apparently made sense to Team Obama, since they’re the ones who signed the deal to use the airport more. But this does not obviously have anything to do with Trump. Hey, take it from the man himself! “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME,” the president tweeted on Monday. So far, this looks like the truth. Miracles can happen!
The most hilarious and self-defeating detail in this morning’s BREAKING news from Politico is this: “Since 2015, the [Air Force] has lodged crews in the area 659 times, meaning up to 6 percent of those stays were at Turnberry.” Wow, 6 whole percent? I can only imagine what the president’s directive on this matter might have been. “Get Mark Esper in here now, dammit! Esper, my Scottish resort is in trouble. Take a break from saving the world and save Trump Turnberry! I want you to make sure up to 6 percent of your Air Force guys making those fuel stops in Scotland are staying at my hotel. Make it happen or you’ll be playing shuffleboard with Mattis!”