As the title suggests, there was one major story that broke this week that everyone has been talking about, and one that may be revisited multiple times as we get closer to the election. But we can talk about The Atlantic’s piece later.
I think it’s important to revisit what we talked about last week: How the Presidential race is actually very boring. We have had another week of polling after many pundits insisted that Trump would soon be closing the gap with Biden over the unrest in cities. The evidence we have now shows us that the pundits were wrong; Biden’s lead over Trump is virtually unchanged from before the conventions and is currently the steadiest on record.
Moreover, we have a CBS poll out of Wisconsin - where the most recent protests and riots arose - that shows something pretty interesting: Biden leads Trump by ten points on, “Who is trying to calm the situation down?” Trump, on the other hand, has a lead of about seventeen points on, “Who is encouraging fighting?” Right there, you have a poll in a battleground state (that shows Biden in the lead), where there were violent protests, and pretty definitive proof that Trump’s law and order campaign will not work on most voters because most voters have eyes and ears. Punditry, as an industry, can be pretty good because not everything in politics revolves around interpreting data, but punditry also relies on believing in a set of priors that are sometimes no longer applicable. Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon, and Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.
We all want to talk about Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic. For those who have not read it, Goldberg spoke with multiple sources who said that Trump referred to Americans who died in war as “losers” and “suckers.” While that is not all that different from things he has said publicly, it is pretty shocking.
To get the easy stuff out of the way, the reporting is almost certainly true. Shortly after Goldberg’s piece went to print, his reporting was confirmed by the Associated Press and then by Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin. Other outlets took longer, but they have also gotten written confirmations of the elements of Goldberg’s story.
Here is the thing about anonymous sources: Sometimes they are necessary in order to get a certain story out in the open. There are multiple reasons why sources who are discussing issues within the Trump Administration would want to remain anonymous:
They might still work in the Trump Administration!
They are not ready for the onslaught of abuse that will inevitably come from Trump and his supporters.
They might be discussing things that are at best extremely sensitive or at worst, illegal (this applies more generally than to the current situation).
They probably know that even if they were to go on the record publicly, Trump and his supporters will simply call them a liar.
I think you should have two things in mind whenever you are reading a story with a lot of anonymous sources. First, the author of the piece is trying to communicate things to the general public, but they are also trying to communicate things to other journalists and more savvy news consumers. The author will include as much detail about the source as is allowed, e.g., describing them as a “law enforcement official,” rather than a “government official.” This can tip off a reporter who wants to confirm the story and let them know that they should start with the Department of Justice rather than The Pentagon.
Second, the quotes from anonymous sources should be presumed to be true. This gets dicey when you read a report from a less credible outlet, but for the legacy publications (which I think describes The Atlantic) they are not publishing words that were not said. If you bring a quote from an anonymous source to an editor and the editor finds out that you invented the quote out of thin air, that is a very easy way to get yourself fired, and that would happen before the story is even close to going to print. Goldberg spoke to three sources “with direct knowledge” of Trump’s statements, but if you look at the subheading, Goldberg also talks about “multiple sources” giving details about his statements.
Each publication is different, but rules for sourcing - especially when using anonymous sources - are generally rigorous. Goldberg’s language makes it seem like he spoke to three sources but then spoke to other sources either “on background” (you cannot quote what the source said but they can give you general information about your story and you can include that in your piece) or “deep background” (the source gives you information that you cannot print, but you can use it to enhance your own knowledge and confirm what other sources have told you) in order to confirm his story. Goldberg also gives another hint: He noted that John Kelly declined to comment for his piece. This rule is different across publications, but generally you cannot quote things that a source told you and then say they declined to comment (this does not apply to institutions, however; you can say “…the Department of Justice declined to comment,” and still have one of your sources be within the Department of Justice). So, we can safely assume that John Kelly was not one of the anonymous sources.
One other thing to note: “Both sides” have a tendency to hate anonymous sources when it is convenient for them. The Clinton Email story, for example, was initially reported by Michael Schmidt, who used - you guessed it - anonymous sources to confirm and enhance his reporting. Try to think back on how many Republicans pumped the brakes on that story because they felt uneasy about Schmidt’s use of sources. As is this case with other reporting, people trusted the piece because Schmidt is an incredible reporter with lots of credibility.
To that end, it is no mistake that Goldberg’s name went on the piece. He has written in-depth articles about highly sensitive foreign policy issues, many of which involve Israel, whose government tends to be more secretive. Goldberg’s name is on the piece because his integrity is unimpeachable.
That also brings us to Jennifer Griffin, the reporter from Fox News who confirmed Goldberg’s reporting. I think many liberals assume that Fox News is one giant propaganda outfit, and while elements of that accusation may be applicable to the evening shows like The White Power Hour with Tucker Carlson, it should not apply to their news division (or their polling division, while we’re having this discussion). Griffin is the best national security reporter working for the cable outlets, full stop. She covered Nelson Mandela and worked for both the Associated Press and NPR. She knows virtually everyone at the Pentagon and has relationships with multiple national security experts working in government; if Griffin is saying these sources confirmed the story to her, then they did.
So, now that we’ve settled whether or not you can believe the reporting, we should ask the more relevant question: How does it matter? In reality, it may not. Public opinion about Trump is incredibly stable and set in stone: Even his supporters know that he is not a good person. I would not expect this to budge the needle all that much, but recent polling (also from after the RNC, but before this story broke) has Biden leading Trump among members of the military. As Harry Enten from CNN has noted, Trump is unlikely to win without Veteran support. To put it simply, Trump’s problems are bigger than the reaction to a single piece in The Atlantic.
Going back to The Atlantic, there is a great interview with Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who was on the team investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian Intelligence in 2016. He provides helpful context about how Trump’s interactions with the Russian government made him vulnerable to blackmail, and how this is different from saying Trump is an undercover agent for the Kremlin:
In counterintelligence, when we say somebody is “compromised,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a Manchurian candidate or a spy who has been wittingly recruited. I don’t think that Trump, when he meets with Putin, receives a task list for the next quarter. But I do think the president is compromised, that he is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well. For example, when he is on the campaign trail saying I have no financial relationships with Russia, while at the very same time, his lawyer Michael Cohen is in Moscow negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower, there are people who know that. Vladimir Putin knows that. As it happened, the FBI knew it. But nobody in the American public knew it. So the moment that he says it, everybody who knows about that lie has leverage over him.
Many have focused on Strzok’s (now revealed) negative comments about Trump during the investigation, but few note that Strzok said similarly bad things about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which makes me appreciate him more. Like everything post-2016, I think Strzok has been unfairly politicized by a President who did not like what the FBI found out about his campaign. Overall, it’s a great interview by another fantastic journalist: Anne Applebaum.
Dexter Filkins has a great piece on voting rights in Florida. In keeping with my just-realized theme of citing to really credible journalists in this piece, Filkins is one of the best reporters currently alive. His book on Iraq - The Forever War - is something that every American should read.
Finally, The Washington Post has a great piece on the head of the Postal Service, Louis DeJoy, and how some of his fundraising for the GOP may have been illegal. In any other week, this would have probably been the major story.
Pic this week is from a simpler time, when Rocky Mountain National Park was fully open and not obscured by wildfire haze. Happy Labor Day!