The Ukraine Scandal Was in Plain Sight

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey there. This episode contains just the tiniest bit of salty language. Okay here’s the show. Eric Szymanski is an editor at ProPublica works on the Trump Inc podcast with WNYC. And back in the summer he started noticing these stories in The New York Times in BuzzFeed stories about Rudy Giuliani pushing to get Ukraine’s help securing Donald Trump’s re-election.

S2: I remember reading it honestly and looking at it. I mean just like my honest thing I was like wait on the one hand I had this internal voice being like wait this is a big deal because it’s I think it’s the president’s lawyer suborning foreign policy for political interests I think but not everybody is saying let’s elect.

Advertisement

S3: I mean I’m missing something here. And like oh look there’s another tab there’s another story I’ve got to go to that.

S1: Okay. And you are an investigative editor. How long have you been doing this. I’ve been doing it a long time. When Eric says he’s been doing this a long time he means 20 plus years and still hey look at these stories and think in Trump’s Washington. Is this a big deal. But this early reporting it was undoubtedly the first draft of the story. We all can’t stop talking about now the story of a president who seems to be enlisting a foreign government to interfere in domestic politics. Looking back it’s hard not to wonder what made the whistleblowers version of the story so much stickier.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: I think it’s like some weird combination of this is simpler to understand. It’s an accretion of things.

S5: It happened at the moment also people in power which is to say political power.

S4: Nancy Pelosi and then I think people in the media and top decided it was a scandal. This was the thing and then it gets elevated and then we’re like Holy shit. Look at the thing. And at that point all the facts that were sort of like in the air and that we sort of vaguely knew about didn’t quite understand. You then see them in this new prism of understanding oh OK this is the scandal I’m supposed to pay attention to. And. You realize. Oh it’s all been out there but like we just couldn’t process it. Today on the show.

Advertisement

S6: What happens when bad behavior is hiding in plain sight. Eric and I are going to talk about why it feels like even journalists who had the Ukraine story missed the Ukraine story. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: Hey listener. One more thing before we get the rest of the show started. Do you want to meet up sometime. Because next month I am hosting a very special live show at The Bell House in Brooklyn. I’m going to be talking to Slate’s amazing crew of female journalists about the upcoming election Virginia Heffernan is gonna be there from Trump cast. Dahlia Lithwick from Amicus is going to be there too. So will Nicole Perkins from first aid kit and I’m also hoping that you are going to be there. So mark your calendar Wednesday November 20th at 7 p.m. and go get your tickets go to Slate dot.com slash live and I will see you there. It was back in May when one of the first stories cropped up connecting President Trump and Ukraine. It ran on the front page of The New York Times and it was headlined for Biden a Ukraine matter that won’t go away.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: In that story itself there’s this little buried thing that I sort of counted I think it was in the 12th or 13th paragraph in the story that’s headlined about Biden right.

S7: It says that Rudy had been meeting with a Ukrainian prosecutor a Ukrainian prosecutor by the way who everybody has agreed he’s corrupt. Wright eventually fired for that corruption. When you say everyone the EU the anti-corruption groups in Ukraine the Obama administration I don’t know. That seems like a sort of solid list so far.

S2: So Rudy is meeting with this guy who has a checkered background and pushing him to in fact investigate. BIDEN Right. So this is in the 13th paragraph. But here’s the key thing that is mentioned in this according to the prosecutor Rudy calls the president during that time during their meeting.

Advertisement

S3: Mm hmm. And says Let me loop you in on this. This is very exciting development very exciting development.

S2: We are going to dig into Joe Biden and his family and all this stuff and I am psyched that we’re all on board right. And that is again in the 13th paragraph of a story that’s headlined about questions about Joe Biden and a few days later Giuliani really makes a splash.

S1: He basically is the sole subject of another article by New York Times right.

S8: A few days later to The New York Times great credit and it’s Ken Vogel who did both stories. They do an excellent story. Probably the best story that had been done for months and that would be done for months about Rudy Giuliani’s foreign. The hook was that he was planning on going to Ukraine to talk to all these prosecutors. And this raises serious questions and there is actually a quote there are these awesome quotes from Giuliani where he says some might think this is a problem.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: And he also says well we are not interfering in an election or interfering in an investigation. He really does feel like you’re there like watching him pack his bags and he’s about to go on a jaunt right.

S8: So it’s a great article that is the article that prompts Chris Murphy Senator Murphy to say what is going on here. And Giuliani cancels the trip under heat and you know sort of like that’s that right.

S2: Good God even knows what scandal was happening or what news was happening in May right. Subsequently we learn what ends up happening with Giuliani is OK. He doesn’t go. Two of his associates go.

Advertisement

S1: Mm hmm. I wonder how you think about the work of the reporter here. Ken Vogel because you’re right that it was some of the first reporting of all of this nonsense in Ukraine and what Giuliani and the president were up to. But he’s caught some heat for how he framed it and whether he pointed in the right direction. Do you think that’s fair. Or do you think that’s really what it is to be in the muck of a story that you’re still figuring out.

S2: I think it’s sort of a mistake to focus on one person in that sense right. It’s you know I mean just even on a most basic level. When you turn in a story right particularly a place like the New York Times which has very close editing particularly on a story of this kind of importance you know it’s an institution that’s making decisions about this. It also just speaks to this larger question of what’s in front of us and what we can see the facts that are in front of us and then actually like understanding something right. So the fact that this thing was buried that Trump was even apparently in on a call with Rudy and this Ukrainian prosecutor to dig into Biden you know the fact that that was in the 13th paragraph that’s not about one person. Right. It’s about like a whole sort of series of people sort of failing to understand the import of what was right in front of us.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Fast forward to this week and we’ve got a different problem. Lots of stories almost too many stories that are impeachment adjacent things we’ve known before that are suddenly news like just this week Attorney General Barr made headlines. He seems to have been asking foreign dignitaries to undermine the Mueller Report. So I asked Eric does he consider that story news.

S7: It’s I think much more incremental news than we understand. I think it’s another example of seeing something in a new light. So what we’ve always known or what’s been public for a number of months is that on behalf of the president the attorney general has announced an investigation into our own intelligence agency’s conclusion an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Advertisement

S2: Right and it’s based on this theory that it was somehow spying that it was improper it was begun with sort of poisoned fruit of disinformation. And again no evidence to support that. But there’s a U.S. attorney that has been named to look into that all public and you know that’s a thing that we’ve long known about. So what we now know is that the attorney general has been calling up and meeting with allies. He actually went to Italy last week. This sort of did blow my mind.

S3: He went to Italy last week to ask for their help in this. Right. So there was all this was breaking. Yeah yeah.

Advertisement

S2: I mean you know it’s nice to be in Italy why you got a bunch of stuff dealing at home. So we now know that he was you know asking for help from foreign governments but we’ve long known that they are have launched a real investigation into the investigators.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well here’s the thing which is I noticed you retweeting this Turning Point USA columnist Benny Johnson.

S3: He was noticing the same thing you are right.

S2: So this is this is sort of like one of these I don’t even know of Through the Looking Glass it’s not even right. Right. So I was like oh my god the attorney general was raising this you know last week and this guy tweets back at me and says No no no you guys got it all wrong.

S3: It’s not some secret campaign look here is video of Trump urging all Australians and others to look into this all the way back in May. Right. He did it publicly. Here’s an interview.

S8: And it was like You know one of these things he does outside of Marine One outside of the helicopter.

S9: And I hope he looks at the UK and I hope he looks at Australia and I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything because there was a home that was perpetrated on our country.

S3: And you know his response to that is see no big deal. Right. Except of course the right response to that is holy shit the press made it may well as calling for allies to investigate our own intelligence agencies.

S1: But this seems like the crux of the problem to me because because journalists and stakeholders were presenting the facts but not necessarily shaping it for people it means the meaning is being derived by whoever is telling the story. And that means that for a long time we had the story but we didn’t know what it meant.

S2: Yep. And that by the way is the job of journalism. Right. To not just bring facts to light but to help you understand them and to convey their import. Right. We use judgment. This is how big of us just honest very simple level of well. How big do we play this story. How big of a headline. Where do we play this story. And that is really where you can see this difference where it’s it’s not about the facts right. It’s it’s about the sort of perception and import with which we play them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But there’s another thing that’s making it difficult for journalists to sort through this news. It’s the Trump administration’s habit of openly defending actions that other officials might not want to acknowledge at all. Remember earlier this summer the president had no problem saying he welcomed foreign meddling in the political process.

S10: Foreigners if Russia if China if someone else offers you information should they accept it or should they call the FBI.

S11: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don’t there’s nothing wrong with listening.

S10: If somebody called from a country in Norway we have information on your phone. Oh I think I’d want to hear. You want that kind of interference in our elections.

S11: It’s not an interference I have information. I think I’d take it if I thought there was something wrong I’d go maybe to the FBI if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with Apple research right they come up with Apple research. Oh let’s call the FBI. The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. But you go and talk honestly to congressmen. They all do it. They always have and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.

S2: So let’s get back to there actually two things that happen right. One is that we just sort of cognitively think like I don’t know if a president’s talking about something publicly it can’t be that much of a scandal. It also devalues the information in a funny way for journalists. Right. In a very practical and self-interested way which is that if you’re the only person that finds out about the phone call you have an enormous scoop. Right. And you’re gonna go to the ends of the earth to pound the details out of that and to play it big right. This is your moment. If you’re writing that the president on the White House lawn said that allies should investigate our own intelligence agencies and it’s on Twitter. I don’t know maybe you write that and like maybe you just like go out to coffee because somebody else writes it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But it seems like journalism isn’t really prepared for this strategy. You know there have there have been requests in the last week or so for instance from the Biden campaign saying don’t book Rudy Giuliani on your show because he’s going to come on and he’s going to say things that are untrue and even no matter how much you push back it’s gonna be out there. And I wonder what you think of that strategy because it’s silencing someone. But at the same time how do we deal with the information otherwise like how do we do it better.

S7: Yeah I think it’s a tremendously hard problem. I mean I’m a big believer in contextualizing things. You know you don’t put the raw quotes out there you always contextualize it. And you know in Texas we have the privilege of doing that much more easily than you do on say live TV. Right. But I don’t know do you just simply cut off the air for these folks. Maybe maybe you really push yourself. You know there were some tremendous interviews that were done over the weekend with Representative Jim Jordan correct.

S2: You know where hosts really pushed them and showed that they didn’t have a command of the material that they were you know I mean spinning is a generous term. I think that that is instructive for a lot of people to see.

S12: But you’re setting a standard that is not being met. Right now I’m just I’m just telling you what happened. JOE BIDEN No you’re not. Said fire this prosecutor you’re not getting you know you’re suggesting that Biden called for the prosecutor should be fired to put time in prison that’s not what happened President Trump said.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You said that the current situation that we’re in right now with this whistleblower complaint you compare it to how we came to realize torture was wrong during the Iraq war. Yeah I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit.

S2: Sure. So in another life I really dug into this exact same dynamic in terms of the coverage of torture. And it really followed a lot of the similar paths. So for example you had a lot of facts about the U.S. mistreatment and torture of detainees that were known not all of them right. Not all of them by any means. But a lot of facts we knew about stress positions quote unquote we knew about what’s called CIA dark prisons. We knew that detainees had died in custody and yet we didn’t play it as a scandal we didn’t put the headlines on it. So if I could just give one very quick example because it has always always stuck with me in this is 2002 right two Afghan detainees die in U.S. custody and New York Times reporter is like Well gee that’s weird and it goes to report it and talks with the family and sees a death certificate that says the cause was homicide homicide homicide. Literally says homicide. Yep. Later we learned that this is literally according to the autopsy I think his legs had been beaten so severely that they were essentially pulp RFID. So sorry for that detail but this reporter Carlotta Gall writes the story and the editor at the time Roger Cohn pitches it to page one and it gets rejected and he pitches it again and it gets rejected again and ultimately the story runs on page 13 with a headline that says something like U.S. investigating detainee deaths. Right. The investigation had been caused because the reporter was asking questions and you know it wasn’t a front page story. It wasn’t played as a scandal and yet these essential facts were there. And in the case of torture it wasn’t until photos of mistreatment at Abu Ghraib came out that we snapped to attention and the narrative shifted. Then once the narrative shifts you see all these facts in New Light. Oh we knew about you know this. There was a then stories about what happened to this detainee. And that was a big thing. And CIA dark prisons and that was a big thing and stress positions and on and on. You know that when the narrative changes and this is the same thing that’s happened with Ukraine you then take all that you can report these new facts and fit them into the narrative that has then become the dominant narrative that torture is a scandal that this Ukraine thing is a scandal that has a much easier cognitive task in many ways than to be the journalist or the outlet or even the politician who says this thing that we haven’t been paying attention to we all need to understand this as a scandal that’s a much harder cognitive sort of work and much riskier thing professionally than to say Oh yeah. Here’s another bit of this thing that we already all agree is a scandal.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I hear what you’re saying which is that we had on the information and we didn’t act. I’m curious who you think the WI is in that whether you look at journalists whether you look at people in government like more attention should have been paid to this story but by whom.

S2: I think it is by both the political class and yeah by journalists and I want to be clear I don’t think it’s too reductive to say it was all out there and we just needed to pay attention. It was not all out there and the fact that there was a phone call in which you know Trump said I need a favor right that’s meaningful and that’s significant. But I think that it is worth asking ourselves and just understanding the dynamic that why weren’t we digging more. And is that simply because the facts weren’t out there. Or because we weren’t understanding it in the right light. What do we pay attention to and why.

S4: And why do we call some things a scandal and why do we play a thing big on page one.

S13: What sort of take a moment to think about the choices we’re making.

S6: Eric Domanski thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Eric Minsky is deputy managing editor at ProPublica. He’s also the editor of the trumping podcast a show that looks at the business of Trump and his administration.

S14: It just so happens that Trump Inc. Is dropping a new episode today and co-host Ilya Meretz was in Ukraine reporting on Giuliani’s dealings there.

S8: Eric says Ilya came back with some pretty interesting details but actually one of the other things that Eliot did is go to the president’s mansion which is much more of like an estate which is now a museum of corruption and truly like a literal museum of corruption a literal museum of corruption though as Elliot points out it’s not actually publicly owned it’s owned by a mysterious LLC worth no money it’s going to so it’s like it’s like some serious metal corruption that’s going on Trump and dropped a new episode today so make sure you check it out.

S14: All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason De Leo and Daniel Hewett And Mara silvers. What do you think of what we’re up to. Let us now go on Apple Pie. Guests leave us a rating and a review. You can also just tweeted me I’m at Mary’s desk. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.