The New York Times produced a long piece on Wednesday outlining the campaign-year FBI investigation of Russian ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The central takeaway most people are coming away with is the remarkable difference in FBI behavior, between the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the investigation into whether a major party’s presidential campaign team was illicitly soliciting, and obtaining, the assistance of a hostile foreign power in boosting their electoral chances. That difference can be attributed almost entirely to then-director James Comey. He was the one who, on his own volition, loudly announced the investigation into Clinton, breaking longstanding bureau protocols. Those protocols would remain in full effect for the Trump investigation, however.
But Comey’s actions alone did not produce the disparity of coverage. It was the Times itself that burbled breathlessly about each new tidbit of Clinton coverage, and it was the Times that inserted itself dramatically into a growing public debate over apparent Russian preference for Trump with a last-week-of-the-campaign piece thoroughly dumping on the notion: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
We learned only after the election how misleading that particular write-up was. The FBI in fact had been investigating multiple links between Trump staffers and Russian agents. To be sure, it was not conclusive—but it was not the dead end the Times and its sources were painting it to be. On the contrary, it would soon turn up information that would roil the nation, necessitate the appointment of a special counsel, and result in indictments against multiple members of the Trump campaign—with the looming prospect of perhaps many more.
Here’s how the new Times look at those early days addresses the paper’s own role in downplaying the extent of the FBI’s investigation:
The resulting article, on Oct. 31, reflected that caution and said that agents had uncovered no “conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
The key fact of the article — that the F.B.I. had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — was published in the 10th paragraph.
A year and a half later, no public evidence has surfaced connecting Mr. Trump’s advisers to the hacking or linking Mr. Trump himself to the Russian government’s disruptive efforts. But the article’s tone and headline — “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” — gave an air of finality to an investigation that was just beginning.
Democrats say that article pre-emptively exonerated Mr. Trump, dousing chances to raise questions about the campaign’s Russian ties before Election Day.
For those of you studying modern journalism, this is a museum-quality use of the “Democrats say” construct. No need to deduce whether a reasonable but unpolitical bystander would come to the same conclusion; suffice it to say that Democrats say one might interpret it as such.
Aside from that, the note that the Times downplayed the acknowledgement of the investigation into Trump’s aides into a tenth-paragraph aside is seemingly meant as a defense—at least we mentioned it, after all—and the notion that no public evidence has surfaced connecting Mr. Trump’s advisers to the hacking or linking Mr. Trump himself to the Russian government’s disruptive efforts relies itself on tenuous, specific parsing. There is public evidence connecting Trump’s advisers to the disruptive efforts, from Papadopoulos to Donald Jr.; there is public evidence connecting Trump himself to an attempted cover-up afterward. Nearly any other phrasing chosen for that sentence would oblige an admission that public evidence indeed exists connecting the campaign and Russian effort, so it is odd that the Times circumscribed their claim to declare the Trump team unlinked specifically to the hacking part. Again, a curious phrasing.
Just as the F.B.I. has been criticized for its handling of the Trump investigation, so too has The Times.
For Mr. Steele, it dashed his confidence in American law enforcement. “He didn’t know what was happening inside the F.B.I.,” Glenn R. Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, testified this year. “And there was a concern that the F.B.I. was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people.”
This bit is awkwardly phrased, but appears to be a somewhat-distanced way of saying the identical “For Mr. Steele, the Times’ handling of the Trump investigation dashed his confidence in American law enforcement.” Which would be a rather big deal, considering that it led to Steele and the FBI distancing themselves from each other, cutting off what had been, for the FBI, a useful contact.
That is the sum total of the Times’ introspection on the topic. An election-eve announcement that the FBI “sees no clear link” from Trump to Russia gave, perhaps, an air of finality to a probe that soon afterward ballooned into one of the most significant investigations of the modern era.
Make of that what you will.