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All the President’s Reporters

Donald Trump’s leaky, dysfunctional administration has created a historic moment for the press, and every scandal feels like a new and massive breakthrough

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The New York Times was skillful enough, or cruel enough, to expose Donald Trump Jr. in installments. On Saturday, it broke the news of a meeting between Don Jr. and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer that had occurred in June 2016. On Sunday, the paper added that Don Jr. knew that "damaging information about Hillary Clinton" was going to be dangled at the meeting. On Monday, the Times reported that he had been told in an email that the information came from the Russian government, which wanted Trump to win the election. By 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the Times had the email and was preparing to publish it and others. Under duress, Don Jr. tweeted the emails himself. It was an unthinkable moment in American politics: attached, please find my smoking gun.

Back in January, Jack Shafer, my old boss, wrote that Trump was "making journalism great again." Spared from playing nice with a new administration, reporters could get right to the work of muckraking.

Six months into Trump’s presidency, you can take Shafer’s conceit a step further. The story of the Trump administration is becoming inextricable from the story of the people covering it — from Glenn and Maggie; from David and Robert; from Joe and Mika and Katy and Jake; from McKay; and on and on. No president since Nixon has found himself so joined to the reporters he loathes (and the few he likes), and none has inspired quite so many heroic-journalist profiles. For Trump, who obviously despises the press, the irony has got to be grating. So far, the history of the Trump administration is being written as a history of reporters taking apart the Trump administration.

The insta-history of every president is written by his press corps. But among recent presidents, only Nixon produced a bookshelf’s worth of volumes about the reporters themselves. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post were the most famous foils of the administration. But Max Holland’s excellent book Leak explains that Watergate was actually a hydra of a story, chased by many publications, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and Time magazine — and fed and watered by Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, in his failed quest to become director of the FBI.

In the Trump administration, things have gone beyond even the Nixon model. We needn’t fixate on two plucky reporters and their steely editors. We can pick from a huge gallery of reporters.

Many of the stories about Trump and the press have rightly focused on the all-conference newspaper reporters. Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman and others at The New York Times. David Fahrenthold and Robert Costa and others at The Washington Post.

The cover of the new issue of The New York Times Magazine features a cartoon depiction of Trump’s Washington with Haberman at downstage center. In other times, this might have been an unseemly form of Times back-patting. Today, it isn’t. It would be impossible to write a history of the Trump administration that didn’t include Maggie Haberman.

The sheer number of earthshaking scoops these reporters have produced means the news is constantly churning. Last month, CNN botched a Trump-Russia story, leading to the resignation of three reporters and editors and some taunting tweets from Trump himself. Today, no one much remembers the incident, because it has been drowned by legitimate Trump-Russia stories broken by the Times.

There are TV stars whose careers have been made or burnished by Trump: Katy Tur, Jake Tapper, Van Jones, Jim Acosta (he of the kvetching that Trump’s press briefings aren’t televised). Roger Ailes’s ouster from Fox News and subsequent death seemed to deprive the Trump-press saga of one of its scenery-chewing villains. But CNN’s Jeff Zucker — who made Trump a reality TV star and now gives a paycheck to Jeffrey Lord — will do just fine as a substitute.

Trump has accidentally fueled the rise of liberal conspiracists. The Russia reporting of Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor doesn’t remind you of Alan Pakula’s movie All the President’s Men. It reminds you of another Pakula movie: The Parallax View.

A media member doesn’t have to be antagonistic toward Trump to feel like a big, world-historical player. Trump has empowered the sympathetic and/or troll media that has his back, no matter how grim things look. In an excerpt from his new book, Joshua Green notes that Steve Bannon’s old site, Breitbart, had a "fixation on race, crime, immigration, radical Islam, and the excesses of political correctness … [that] had done much to inform Trump’s populist inclinations and his political vocabulary." (The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray is writing a Breitbart book, too.) Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed has created a full-blown beat covering Trump’s media trolls and explaining their plots to the world. Matt Drudge — a visitor to the Oval Office — is sort of relevant again. Radio host Alex Jones created a ruckus merely by being interviewed by Megyn Kelly. Kelly, of course, became a network star thanks in part to Trump’s insults.

Creating a separate category for Sean Hannity may seem redundant. But Hannity has carved out his own place in the Trump-press saga. To "hannitize," CNN’s Alex Koppelman tweeted today, is "to clean up a messy situation with a softball interview." Trump Jr. is going on Hannity’s show Tuesday night to explain why his emails aren’t evidence of a scandal or a crime.

It’s a sign of the fixation on the ass-kicking journalists of the present that Hollywood has gone searching for their analogues in the past. In December, Steven Spielberg will release a movie about The Washington Post’s coverage of Nixon and its publication of the Pentagon Papers. Recently, Spielberg and his star Tom Hanks turned up for a Post morning news meeting. The message was clear: Thanks to its fearless coverage of Trump, Hollywood does not see the Post as an old-media institution fighting for relevance in a new-media universe. It sees it as a place of heroes.

Why has the press gained new prominence? Shafer mentioned one reason in his piece: Trump treated the press so shabbily that he inspired reporters to greater heights. During campaign rallies, reporters were confined in pens and blasted from the podium. Now, anodyne White House briefings (like today’s) are often delivered off camera. It’s no wonder that reporters showed up for the new administration — to borrow a cliché from the sports beat — in the best shape of their lives.

A second reason is Trump’s propensity to elevate the media by criticizing it. His tweets about Mika Brzezinski’s so-called "bleeding" face-lift last month were a prime example. Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough are plenty famous for having a morning cable show with a smallish audience. Trump has turned them into adversaries more prominent than most Democrats in the Senate and House. While Don Jr. is on Hannity on Tuesday night, Mika and Joe will be taping an episode of Colbert alongside Andy Serkis.

Third, Trump faces a media world that only Barack Obama and maybe George W. Bush would know. Everybody is a political writer. I wrote a few months ago about sportswriters smashing the walls that had been (mostly) maintained around their beat. You don’t need to single out sportswriters. Anyone can tweet something funny about Don Jr.

Finally, there’s a facet of the Trump administration that Woodward and Bernstein would envy: the proclivity of Trumpites to leak to the press. Why do these people keep talking? Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall observed that Sunday’s Times story was sourced to "three advisors to the White House" and two other people "with knowledge of" the meeting. It’s an amazing level of sourcing for a story that will cripple the presidency, at least temporarily. Today, Don Jr. published his own incriminating email — the equivalent of John Ehrlichman turning secret tape transcripts into a Newsweek "My Turn."

For years, the press has gotten dinged for "making itself the story." Thanks to Trump, the metamorphosis is unavoidable. This isn’t All the President’s Men. It’s All the President’s Reporters, Muckrakers, Drive-by Twitter Victims, Troll Armies, and Useful Media Idiots. If the press is writing a history of the Trump administration, it’s turning out to be an autobiography.