Press Watch: After all its great reporting, Washington Post self-gaslights on impeachment

Days after publishing damning reports on Trump's conduct, WaPo bizarrely suggests he was a "supporting character"

Published November 12, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

The White House and the Washington Post logo (Getty Images/Washington Post/Salon)
The White House and the Washington Post logo (Getty Images/Washington Post/Salon)

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The front page of Monday’s Washington Post trolls reality by peddling the pernicious farce that Donald Trump is just a “supporting character” in the Ukraine scandal — as if the rough transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was even the slightest bit ambiguous about his personal enthusiasm to use his office to commit extortion.

National security reporter Greg Jaffe’s masterpiece of credulity reflects an extraordinary willingness to doubt not only the facts as amply reported by his own and other major media outlets, but to reject his own previous reporting.

Just last week, for instance, Jaffe and Mike DeBonis reported on the powerful testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who oversaw Ukraine policy, that Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to a microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton.”

Nevertheless, here’s how Jaffe opened his Monday front-pager:

In the nearly 3,000 pages of interviews from the House impeachment inquiry released last week, President Trump often seems like a supporting character in someone else’s drama.

This goes beyond swallowing an obvious lie without requisite skepticism. This is willingly dismissing what you yourself once observed as truth. This is letting yourself be gaslighted.

And the article also sets ridiculous goalposts for the impeachment hearings that begin on Wednesday. Contrary to what Jaffe suggests, the witnesses — whose initial testimony is already public — do not need to establish that Trump micromanaged every single bit of what happened backstage.

The transcript of Trump’s phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky is Exhibit A. All the witnesses need to do is provide evidence to support the conclusion that what appeared on its face to contain an extortion attempt — or, euphemistically, a quid pro quo — was obviously and exactly that.

Here is Jaffe’s breathtakingly naïve nut graph:

Amid the torrent of testimony, it is easy to forget that the crux of the historic House impeachment inquiry boils down to a simple question: What did Trump want from the Ukrainians — and what exactly did he do?

This fantastical approach requires Jaffe to cast reading the transcript as a “you decide” moment, which it most emphatically is not.

So Jaffe writes that both Republicans and Democrats have cited it in their arguments. He equates the laughably pathetic attempt at muddying the issue by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — who said that Trump is so “incoherent” that he’s “incapable of forming a quid pro quo” — with Democrats citing the extensive testimonial record in support of a facial reading of the transcript.

All the known executive-branch actions — notably, the suspension of Ukraine’s military aid and the recall of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — support that reading as well.

There is one big thing the witnesses add beyond confirmation of the obvious, and that is to flesh out Trump’s motive. Which they do, as Jaffe acknowledges:

Most officials suspected Trump’s rage traced back to the conspiracy-theory conversations he was having with Giuliani regarding alleged — and unsubstantiated — Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

And yes, as Jaffe writes, Trump hangers-on are often blindsided by the latest Trump Twitter explosion. But there is no indication that he ever wavered on his paranoia and extortionate intent regarding Ukraine.

What’s up with the WaPo?

Something weird is going on in at least one corner of the Post newsroom.

Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade initially reported this latest episode of obviously desperate dead-ender spin in Thursday’s Post. And they did so with the journalistic equivalent of a straight face.

For instance, the article — headlined “House GOP looks to protect Trump by raising doubts about motives of his deputies” — literally did not mention the partial transcript of the Zelensky phone call. That immediately struck me as an extreme manifestation of source maintenance.

Did the same person edit both that and the Jaffe story? I have to wonder.

This is obviously not an entirely isolated problem in the Post newsroom. Numerous people on the Post’s national desk retweeted Jaffe’s story with evident approval on Monday.

I somehow doubt, however, that we’ll see a supportive tweet from Greg Sargent, the sharp and prolific Plum Line blogger for the Post. He called the attempt to distance Trump from the scandal epic nonsense and spectacularly implausible last week, noting that “this argument requires one to pretend that numerous widely documented facts simply don’t exist — including repeated public statements by the president himself.”

Nor, I suspect, will it get any love from Post media writer Margaret Sullivan. One section away from Jaffe’s piece — on Monday’s Style section front page — Sullivan issued a plea to reporters not to screw up their coverage of the impeachment hearings. She had a lot of excellent, specific advice, such as “Beware mealy-mouthed and misleading language” — although she left out: “Don’t let the White House gaslight you.”

Twitter weighs in

I asked my Twitter followers what they made of Jaffe’s piece this morning, and they had some insightful responses:

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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