Shocking revelations from anonymous sources are hastening the president's decline, but what lies ahead is uncertain.
According to reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, the US president may have pleaded with multiple law enforcement and intelligence community officials to slow or halt an investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia. This interference could amount to obstruction of justice, a crime that might well derail Trump's presidency or end his political career altogether.
Unnamed sources in law enforcement and the intelligence community have served as sources for news reporters in ways that undermine the president's repeated assertions that he and his campaign did not collaborate with Russia to win the 2016 election. But he has made a series of rookie mistakes as president, like firing FBI director James Comey without warning in a way that, even if Trump did offer a clear answer, would have shocked Washington anyway.
Anonymous government sources in Washington have delivered quotes to journalists for decades, but usually the ones coming from the executive branch don't implicate the executive branch in wrongdoing. And Trump has hampered his own team's efforts at message control by tweeting and saying things that directly contradict their spin.
When writing about the state of the United States now, and covering the Trump story, journalists need to be careful with verifying the information the sources provide. Anonymous sources are what make investigative journalism possible, but anonymous sources that end up being wrong, or lying, undermine the public trust in this institution.
A special prosecutor, former FBI director Robert Mueller, is heading up an investigation into Trump's ties to Russia. It's likely that this investigation will drag on for months or years, and more sources will want to remain anonymous, sometimes out of a sense of patriotic duty, sometimes because it's fun to blab, and other times out of thirst for revenge. Those are the three motivations that run Washington leaks.
Journalists need to be careful that they don't get played.
"As with any source, it is important to ascertain, as best as possible, what motives such a source has. Also, does that intelligence community source have direct knowledge about what he/she is speaking to," said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Poynter Institute is an organisation dedicated to improve the state of journalism in the US.
Sometimes lines float out from nowhere and get lodged as fact in the minds of the public. It's important to both verify or contextualize the source's information, but also figure out why the source is speaking anonymously, in a way vague enough not to reveal their identity, but accurate enough to tell the reader who's talking.
"Transparency is important, but it is hollow without accountability. So the journalists must apply a rigorous reporting and editing process that is driven by the highest ethical standards and practises. I fear that too many news organisations take unnecessary risks in using unnamed sources, giving away that confidentiality too easily and too quickly. That being said, I do think there are times when it is essential to use information on background and times when it is essential to use unnamed sources in reporting stories."
Unnamed sources are going to become easier to get in Washington, but the value of the information will decrease, kind of like how the value of money slides with the printing of more money. These circumstances encourage counterfeit information on all sides, with all sides in Washington wanting to land a meaner blow on their rivals.
And that's the second part of the equation. Journalists shouldn't think that discovering the holy grail of anti-Trump leaks, the golden ticket, is going to somehow fix or restore American democracy to a state of self confidence. The investigation that took down President Richard Nixon wasn't followed by a renaissance of prosperous social democracy. It was the mild mannered, football-playing lawyer Gerald Ford who filled Nixon's shoes as the country's cities crumbled and went bankrupt. It also didn't stop the bloody rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Nixon was gone, but the country, and the world, were still a mess.
Journalists, as members of civil society, have the right to write pieces that hasten the demise of the Trump administration. But they also have the duty to keep things in perspective, and continue to write about human stories that don't fixate on Washington, but the country as well. Even though those aren't where you get the scoops. Those are the ones where you spend long hours trying to win the trust of people, so you can help them tell their stories.
The real hard work is in piecing together the statements of reluctant people to get on the record and then corroborating their statements with documentation, that takes time.
But the anonymous leakers, dropping bombshell scoops all over town, don't want to wait for newsrooms to follow the money and uncover deals that could lead to Trump's ouster. And they have a right to say what they want to the press, too.
If Trump resigns or is impeached under the weight of his own tweets, that doesn't remove the underlying factors that caused Trump's rise. It also sets a precedent of calling into question the legitimacy of American democracy in ways that blame foreigners, in this case, Russians. If the Russians had any larger motivation for whatever meddling they allegedly did, it was to undermine Americans' confidence in democracy as an institution. They can say they succeeded even if Trump ends up in handcuffs.
Doug Henwood, a political analyst and economist, is sceptical not only of the intelligence community as sources of any kind of reliable information, but whether the vast "blob" of Washington's establishment, borrowing President Obama's word, really understands how a Pence presidency would be a disaster for liberal causes.
"The reporters who want a scoop, they're pretty much on board with the agenda of destroying Trump, and the democrats haven't really thought what they would do if Pence is president," Henwood said.
Henwood likened the intelligence community's fire sale on juicy information as fitting into a habit these organisations have had for decades: Removing a leader from power and then walking away, whistling, while the country implodes.
Thousands of furious twitter accounts, on both sides of the cyber civil war, will likely not stand down if Trump gets impeached and replaced with Pence, or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan or Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest serving member of the Senate. All of them are extremely conservative, and they know how Washington works and have a much better shot at getting anti-progressive bills passed.
And failing to understand, or care to learn how Washington operates is what has brought Trump to this point. Henwood feels that liberals, if they want to win in 2020, should hope Trump sticks around, with his own tweets paralysing his administration and tarnishing his party's brand.
What's here to stay is partisanship, with polls showing that accusations against Trump have done little to shave off support from die-hard fans. It rather only retrenches either side, and draws attention away from the persistent problems that besiege American democracy, like poverty. In the span of American history, these problems are always with us, yet presidents are only around for a short while â and some shorter than others.
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