It happened again Tuesday evening as it does most nights for David Cohen, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and onetime undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Obama administration.
"Every night before I go to sleep — every single night — I check the Post and Times websites for the latest bombshell, and I am frequently then unable to sleep."
The Boston-bred attorney alluded to The Washington Post and The New York Times, which continue to play what seems to be their private game of Can You Top This? as they cover the Trump administration. It was much the same throughout the 2016 campaign, with one breaking a great story, the other soon surfacing with its own.
Tuesday, it was The Times (no, not CNN, despite the network's constant repetition of having first learned about the matter and flashing that "Breaking News" chyron) that disclosed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned last week as part of the special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller. Then it was The Post disclosing that Mueller was trying to question President Trump about his booting National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.
It doesn't stop. Back in the late winter and spring, I'd compiled a list of the Trump and Hillary Clinton-related scoops by each for a Vanity Fair look at what might be the last great newspaper war.
It was unceasing and encapsulated in Times reporter Peter Baker sitting in the press cabin of Air Force One, on the way to Saudi Arabia, and being told in a call from his boss that the paper was about to disclose that Trump had called Comey a "nut job" in a meeting with Russian officials.
But soon he was staring at Fox News Channel — what else do you figure is on inside Air Force One? — and seeing word that The Post, his alma mater, was breaking a tale on how an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and possible Russian influence had identified "a current White House official as a significant person of interest."
Many others have done great work but the two papers remain ahead of the pack. It's why a sophisticated news consumer like Cohen — he oversaw sanctions again Iran, Russia and Cuba at Treasury, while seeking to impede funding of ISIS —checks them out before conking out.
And yet, unanswered questions
So The Times' Michael Schmidt was the one who disclosed that "Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interviewed by Mueller's investigators last week as part of investigation into obstruction and Russian meddling. (He is the) first member of cabinet known to have been interviewed by Mueller."
He also tweeted this: "Sessions interview reminds me of big question I get — and don’t have an answer to — from nearly every person (lawyers, partisans of all color, legal experts, etc.) involved in/tracking/following Mueller investigation: How has deputy AG Rod Rosenstein not recused himself?"
As previously noted here, Harvard Law's Jack Goldsmith has earlier offered three distinct theories as why Rosenstein has not. After Schmidt's scoop, he offered a fourth theory: "that the obstruction inquiry narrowly focuses on Flynn and not the Comey firing." But, he conceded, "None of these theories is entirely convincing in light of public evidence."
So we don't really know. It's true with most of Mueller's investigation. We don't really know what he was asking Sessions about or what's the significance of talking to Trump. It was why it was refreshing to watch CNN's Jeffrey Toobin asked about the investigation as it might pertain to financial dealings between Trump and Russia — and answering he doesn't know.
That's usually a sin on cable news, where being provocative, or at least interesting, can be a higher priority than being right. If most reporters were honest, they'd follow Toobin rather than engaging in reflexive speculation.
The Morning Babel
Alternative press realities were again on display this morning. "The good news for the president? It sounds like that whole Russian collusion thing, they're not really looking into it," said Steve Doocy, co-host of "Trump & Friends," where the thrust has been to minimize any White House failings while accentuating the de facto conspiracies of Democrats and a meanie FBI.
"One thing is pretty clear, they're coming to a close of this," said his co-host, Brian Kilmeade, who then wondered what can be obstructed "if there's no justice to obstruct?" Huh? Fox prefers what Doocy calls a "massive scandal at the FBI," a view of nothing wrong with Trump. The misdeed? The FBI's real skullduggery. To Doocy, it's "essentially trying to pick the president of the United States." Yes, in the tank for Hillary Clinton
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" offered its alternative reality, drenched in similar speculation. But it's drift is of possible Trump manipulation of the FBI. "Was Trump seeking some assurance of what the FBI would be doing in a post-Comey environment?" asked Washington Post reporter Devlin Barrett, one of an army of A-listers lured to the paper in recent years. He noted Trump's personal animus toward acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and asking whom he voted for in the election.
Over at CNN your head might have been hurting as "New Day" displayed a three panel, screen-wide graphic of "Latest Mueller/Russia Investigation Developments," with, count 'em, nine elements. They ranged from "Mueller's Team Interview James Comey Last Year" to "Sanders: Trump Won't Fire Mueller Because of the Press." You felt as if a No. 2 pencil or a laptop should be nearby, with a room monitor there to call out how much time remained on your Mueller-Trump final.
Oh, frequent CNN pundit Michael Zeldin, a former prosecutor, should have run from CNN's Washington bureau to Fox's when done, so he could share his take with Kilmeade. No justice to obstruct? Well, his speculative bottom line was maybe this investigation was now all about collusion and obstruction of justice, not any financial crimes.
Davos, the press and Trump
"There is nothing that the attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos like better than a news event that fits a narrative and confirms a prejudice," writes The Financial Times. "Donald Trump, the showman in the White House, has obliged."
It could have substituted, or added, "the media" to the line about Davos attendees' assumptions, including when it comes to Trump announcing tariffs against imports of solar panels and washing machines, citing job losses in the U.S. Many of the stories were infused with a sense that this was an aggressive trade warrior.
"The narrative is obvious: Mr Trump is following through on his promise to tear up the rule book and punish China for dumping cheap products on the American market, even at the risk of starting a trade war. That conclusion would, however, be mistaken. Mr Trump’s actions are foolish and counterproductive, to be sure. But they are neither wildly unusual nor, by themselves, desperately damaging. This particular decision says as much about the degree of destructive license afforded by the U.S.’ trade laws as it does about Mr. Trump’s aggressive eccentricities."
Slate goes union
Following in the recent footsteps of editorial employees at Vox Media, those at Slate opted to go union and be represented by the Writers Guild of America, East. The unionizing trend in digital media is a surprise (people assumed millennials were too wary of big organizations and not big on unions) but continues apace.
The union says that in addition to Slate (where management voluntarily recognized the union rather than force a formal election) and Vox Media (meaning Vox.com, Curbed, Eater, Polygon, Racked, Recode, SBNation and The Verge), the union has spearheaded successful drives at VICE, HuffPost, The Intercept, Gizmodo Media Group (Splinter, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, The Root, Lifehacker, Kotaku, io9, Jalopnik, Earther), ThinkProgress, MTV News, Thrillist and Salon.
Tucker is pleasantly taken aback
Tucker Carlson appeared to assume he'd tussle with sports Fox Sports 1 TV host Jason Whitlock on Carlson's Fox News show last night, be it on why Bob Costas is not part of NBC's Super Bowl coverage (he's been very critical of the NFL on the topic of concussions) or whether players should stand for the national anthem.
Nope, he seemed surprised that he was in total agreement with Whitlock, who was removed two years ago as founding editor of the Undefeated, a site about the intersection of sports, race, culture and politics. Costas' critical comments of the NFL and concussions should leave him out of NBC's coverage, Whitlock said, since "the game is a celebration. And players should be mandated to stand during the anthem."
Carlson thus couldn't eviscerate some egregiously inept liberal. He seemed mildly nonplussed and pleasantly surprised.
'The Post' gets an Oscar nod, but NYT gets its due, too
With Meryl Streep justifiably getting her seemingly annual Oscar nomination, there will be a bit more free publicity for "The Post." As for the reality of The New York Times having scooped the world with the Pentagon Papers saga long ago, Roy Harris details all the background on the Pulitzer website.
If you're going to binge on nominated movies before the ceremony, you might take a look at his handiwork.
An editor's frustration
At a Washington Post symposium on fake news and trust in the press on Tuesday, Weekly Standard editor in chief Stephen Hayes voiced frustration with even showing readers a video of Trump lying and people thinking "its doctored."
The conservative then went after the White House for legitimizing "fake news outlets" by giving them the time of day, and space, at briefings. He specifically cited Gateway Pundit.
He also brought up an interview CNN's testosterone-filled Chris Cuomo did with Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget, on the immigration and the so-called Dreamers. "I am probably more sympathetic with Cuomo," he said, but found the session quickly morphed into a semi-shouting match of mere opinion versus opinion."
In his mind, he could imagine other conservatives watching and saying, "This does not work for me. I'm not going to be listening to this guy (Cuomo)."
Imagine: The suicide rate for farmers is twice that of military veterans. It prompted an effective journalism partnership among The Guardian, The Des Moines Register and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalist nonprofit founded by activist author Barbara Ehrenreich. Here's the story.
It's inspired proposed legislation in the State of Washington Legislature to improve mental health care in rural areas. Among those testifying Wednesday before a health care committee is Audra Mulkern, the photographer on the Guardian piece.
The media and Jeff Bezos
Kim Hart and Dan Primack of Axios encapsulate a take on Amazon's search for a second headquarters that's clearly supported by the reporting and commentary of many others so far.
"Elected officials across the country have spent the past three months falling all over themselves to show Amazon just how much their cities love the e-commerce giant and would do just about anything to house its new headquarters."
"Bottom line: The real winner is Amazon, which has created a feedback loop of positive press and fawning politicians just as the company increasingly needs both."
And this relevant element:
"And the media — yes, including us at Axios — have pliantly played along, including through breathless coverage of last week's reality-show unveil of 20 'finalists' (which, conveniently, came shortly before Amazon raised prices on monthly Prime subscriptions)."
In the current era of the press agonizing over declining trust, critics might occasionally note how often it is not only not overly accusatory, privacy invading or ideologically driven but actually something quite different: compliant and a frequent billboard for various establishments. Amazon has played it like a fiddle.