NYT Keeps Downplaying Trump’s Past Retribution Tour

Charlie Savage, Maggie Haberman, and Jonathan Swan keep teaming up to write the same story over and over: A second Trump term is going to be bad … really bad.

Just some of these stories, in reverse order from Tuesday’s latest installment, are:

There are several aspects to these stories: a bid to eliminate civil service protections, a personalization of power, and the elevation of people who proved willing to abuse power in his first term: Russel Vought (who helped obstruct the Ukraine investigation), Stephen Miller, and Johnny McEntee (who even before January 6 was making a willingness to invoke the Insurrection Act a litmus test for hiring at DOD), and Jeffrey Clark.

The series, thus far, skirts the language of authoritarianism and fascism.

At the core of the stories is that Trump is going to use a second term for retribution, to which the June 15 article is dedicated.

When Donald J. Trump responded to his latest indictment by promising to appoint a special prosecutor if he’s re-elected to “go after” President Biden and his family, he signaled that a second Trump term would fully jettison the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.

“I will appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and the entire Biden crime family,” Mr. Trump said at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Tuesday night after his arraignment earlier that day in Miami. “I will totally obliterate the Deep State.”

These stories admit that Trump did some of this in his first term. But they describe a process of retribution by the guy who got elected — with abundant assistance from Maggie Haberman — on a platform of “Lock her up!,” who breached the norm of judicial independence 24 days into office when he asked Jim Comey to “let this” Mike Flynn “thing go,” as something that took a while to “ramp up.”

In his first term, Mr. Trump gradually ramped up pressure on the Justice Department, eroding its traditional independence from White House political control. He is now unabashedly saying he will throw that effort into overdrive if he returns to power.

Mr. Trump’s promise fits into a larger movement on the right to gut the F.B.I., overhaul a Justice Department conservatives claim has been “weaponized” against them and abandon the norm — which many Republicans view as a facade — that the department should operate independently from the president.

Yet even though Savage did some important reporting on some of this (reporting that was counterbalanced by Maggie’s central role in helping Trump obstruct criminal investigations), these pieces always vastly understate how much politicization Trump pulled off in his first term, and never describe how that politicization continues at the hands of people like Jim Jordan.

In the spring of 2018, Mr. Trump told his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, that he wanted to order the Justice Department to investigate his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and James B. Comey Jr., the former head of the F.B.I. Mr. McGahn rebuffed him, saying the president had no authority to order an investigation, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Later in 2018, Mr. Trump publicly demanded that the Justice Department open an investigation into officials involved in the Russia investigation. The following year, Attorney General William P. Barr indeed assigned a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, John Durham, to investigate the investigators — styling it as an administrative review because there was no factual predicate to open a formal criminal investigation.

Mr. Trump also said in 2018 and 2019 that John F. Kerry, the Obama-era secretary of state, should be prosecuted for illegally interfering with American diplomacy by seeking to preserve a nuclear accord with Iran. Geoffrey S. Berman, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan whom Mr. Trump fired in 2020, later wrote in his memoir that the Trump Justice Department pressured him to find a way to charge Mr. Kerry, but he closed the investigation after about a year without bringing any charges.

And as the 2020 election neared, Mr. Trump pressured Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham to file charges against high-level former officials even though the prosecutor had not found a factual basis to justify any. In his own memoir, Mr. Barr wrote that the Durham investigation’s “failure to deliver scalps in time for the election” eroded their relationship even before Mr. Barr refused Mr. Trump’s baseless demand that he say the 2020 election had been corrupt.

Where Mr. Trump’s first-term efforts were scattered and haphazard, key allies — including Jeffrey B. Clark, a former Justice Department official who helped Mr. Trump try to overturn the 2020 election — have been developing a blueprint to make the department in any second Trump term more systematically subject to direct White House control.

This effort was in no way haphazard!!! Most FBI personnel involved in the Russian investigation, from Jim Comey down to line analysts, had their careers systematically ruined, with Peter Strzok (who, the actual record of the Russian investigation shows, repeatedly took steps to protect Trump and Mike Flynn, even if he disliked Trump) offered up as an example of what will happen to people who don’t meekly just accept their punishment or, better yet, retreat to the private sector. The exceptions were the cyber guys who completely bolloxed the Alfa Bank investigation and people like Bill Barnett, who misrepresented the steps he himself took to provide “proof” of corruption on the Mueller investigation. That precedent has been sustained as right wingers take out other FBI agents deemed insufficiently loyal, like Tim Thibault, who personally opened an investigation into the Clinton Foundation in 2016 but who was targeted last year because in 2020 he didn’t mainline disinformation about Hunter Biden.

Yes, Bill Barr ordered Geoffrey Berman to investigate John Kerry. But he also set up a complex, systematic structure to halt  any investigation into Rudy Giuliani so the President’s lawyer could get dirt from Russian spies, feed it to Scott Brady, who would then push that information into the investigations of Hunter Biden and others. When Berman and Jessie Liu refused to break (after a good deal of bending to Barr’s will), he fired them both.

Barr didn’t just pressure John Durham to prosecute high-level people: He skipped, hand-in-hand, with Durham as they used Russian intelligence to fabricate an attack on Hillary Clinton, the organizing logic of an investigation that swept up private sector people and who had the temerity to research Donald Trump or — worse!! — to help Hillary recover from a hack-and-leak. The effort even took out academic researchers who were simply trying to keep the US safe from Russian hacking. Trump did get DOJ to investigate Hillary, with investigations lasting the entirety of his presidency, and that investigation included precisely the kind of fabricated evidence and coached testimony that NYT imagines is a hypothetical left for Trump’s second term.

To the extent these stories talk about Trump’s pardons, they do so prospectively. There’s no discussion of how the pardons of Mike Flynn and Roger Stone rival any of the most corrupt in US history, but were necessary to prevent DOJ from developing proof that Trump conspired with Russia.

These articles don’t describe how Congress has served as a wing of this politicization, from the leaks to Mike Flynn in 2018 about how to undermine his own investigation to sham hearings — like the one with George Papadopoulos unencumbered by the documents that would have provide evidence of “collusion,” in which he spewed out conspiracy theories that Bill Barr and John Durham quickly got on a plane to chase. These articles don’t describe how the current unrelenting attempt to manufacture an impeachment out of the detritus of Hunter Biden’s life could not have happened if Bill Barr hadn’t made very systematic attempts to enable Trump’s retribution tour in 2020.

And these articles don’t describe the violent threats that have become routine for anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump. The threats Trump deployed against Lisa Page and Marie Yovanovitch — “she’s going to go through some things” — exist on an unrelenting continuum as the threats against Ruby Freeman and Lesley Wolf and Fani Willis and Don Bacon’s wife.

Yes, it’s important to warn about what Trump plans to do with a second term. But calling Trump’s past retribution “haphazard” is a journalistic cop-out, a way to avoid admitting that we don’t yet fully understand how systematic Trump’s past retribution was or — worse — don’t want to come to grips with our own central role in it.

For a warning to be effective, we have to show the human costs of all the past retribution — the thousands of Jan6ers who had their lives ruined, the significant degradation in US national security, the fear, especially the fear among Republicans — costs that no one, no matter how loyal, will ultimately escape.

39 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    I didn’t include this in the post, but to some degree, the people Trump wants to install will be less effective at the politicization than Bill Barr was, who was on his second tour at doing this. Jamie Comer is a laughingstock, and it’s likely that Jeffrey Clark would be too.

    Which, in a sense, makes the civil service protections potentially more important (depending on what the Senate does).

    • Savage Librarian says:

      I agree, primarily because it echoes my own fractal experience. Had I not had civil service protection, I would never have had the confidence to challenge local administrators’ flagrant disregard of the law. And even with civil service protection, it was no walk in the park. It was very challenging. So I consider it a very elemental requirement.

      • Savage Librarian says:

        I should mention that by the time I retired, administrators successfully ripped away the civil service status from the class I belonged to and made it an appointed position. The only people it protects are administrators and politicians, regardless of their political persuasion.

        • Rugger_9 says:

          Speaking of ripping away protections, that is what the infamous Schedule F revision at the end of the prior administration was intended to do. It would have reinstated the spoils system process that ended up killing Garfield but for Defendant-1, it would ensure only HIS loyalists were at the levers of power.

    • Rugger_9 says:

      I would note that the politicization is not for the GOP’s benefit but for Defendant-1 only. Loyalty is the true litmus test. Thus, the clown show.

      • ButteredToast says:

        From Trump’s point of view, it is definitely for his benefit only. However, politicization of the civil service is a Republican aim that predates Trump, as you note in another comment. My evaluation is that there are plenty of people, such as Bill Barr and other religious fundamentalists, who mainly saw Trump as a convenient means to achieve longstanding rightwing political goals. In other words, Trump’s personal motivations overlapped with Barr’s political/ideological ones. As another example, Heritage Foundation isn’t drawing up its “Project 2025” solely to protect Trump.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          This. The focus on Trump has swamped the fact that he was the apotheosis of the Republican project that started with Reagan: the destruction of the administrative state. Those who detested him personally but signed on anyway (Lindsey Graham et. al.) recognized that he was in fact the human wrecking ball that could accomplish those long-held goals simply by discrediting government from the inside.

          The MAGA project that gives us moral ulcerations like Speaker Mike Johnson is of a piece with this GOP long game. The worse congress looks the less Americans will trust it, or government generally, to accomplish anything positive for them–including the things it is very much doing right now.

    • David F. Snyder says:

      We need more Mugwumps (e.g. The Lincoln Project). It’s disappointing that the NYT doesn’t fear the corruption already seeded. They still don’t get it (maybe they don’t want to) and thus are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I imagine it’s partly not wanting to own up to being such suckers for Trump back in 2016. “The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” — Emerson

      • mickquinas says:

        RE: The New York Times.
        I invite anyone expecting the NYT as an institution to be part of the means of defending against the fascistic impulses of capitalism and the money power to go ahead and despair now. The Times is not capable of realistically opposing the interests of its owners.

  2. Harry Eagar says:

    Retired newspaperman here. Never worked for the Times, though I had a week’s tryout once. But a lot of my former colleagues did. (Let me tell you about the guy who wa paid to sleep in the newsroom.)

    The politics at the Times is even more vicious than in the trump White House.

    I do not think the Times is corrupt, or bought or the bondservant of Wall Street or the commies, but it is handcuffed by its past. From not publishing what it knew about the Bay off Pigs to publishing what it did not know about Whitewater, it’s a newsroom full of ghosts.

  3. Peterr says:

    “There’s no discussion of how the pardons of Mike Flynn and Roger Stone rival any of the most corrupt in US history, but were necessary to prevent DOJ from developing proof that Trump conspired with Russia.”

    They may have prevented DOJ from filing charges, but I am certain that the Intelligence Community — which includes the FBI — has been carrying out an intelligence investigation, to either satisfy themselves that Flynn and Stone did not compromise national security by passing along sensitive information, or to determine what information was revealed and what steps need to be taken to account for this breach. If the latter turns out to be true, I would not expect the IC to reveal what they learned, unless addressing it would require a change in the law.

    But they *are* looking into this. Flynn was the former Defense Intelligence Agency head, who was forced to retire by the DOD under Obama and who has been looking to settle some scores ever since. The IC can’t let this go uninvestigated, even if the pardon precludes any criminal charges.

    • Gatorbaiter says:

      Haven’t seen anything to suggest that the counterintelligence investigation into the former guy ended either.

  4. Eichhörnchen says:

    “But calling Trump’s past retribution “haphazard” is a journalistic cop-out, a way to avoid admitting that we don’t yet fully understand how systematic Trump’s past retribution was or — worse — don’t want to come to grips with our own central role in it.”

    I think you’re giving them too much credit. They have been chasing access and clicks for so long that their investigative-analytical capacity has atrophied. Intellectual laziness frees them to provide unlimited content — often, as you point out, by repeatedly recycling the same garbage.

  5. Super Nintendo Chalmers says:

    It still bothers me that my late father, who had two degrees from MIT, thought the NYT was brilliant. IMO it’s been at least 30 years of mediocrity at the paper of record.

    I used to work under Eric Lipton at the Vermont Cynic, the UVM student paper. He’s currently languishing as one of the NYT’s Washington bureau writers.

  6. Yogarhythms says:

    Retribution with a vengeance is synonymous with Trumps’s “Stand back and stand by”. Open and notorious is also obvious if your not wearing the latest Maga lenses. NYT data muling celebrates their success. Until the Leopard eats your face it’s delightful.

    • ExRacerX says:

      Nonsense. What does data muling have to do with the NYT in this context? It’s a variety of sneakernet that has to do with data storage, not celebration.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      I expect Rapture to be next in his vocabulary. His definition may be a bit different than some (not all) of the zealots.

  7. RitaRita says:

    The serial and incremental nature of these articles brings to mind the acclimating of the frog to boiling water: Ratcheting up the heat in steps so the frog gets used to it and then the frog dies.

    The overarching theme of the series is Trump’s desire for destruction of the federal government and reconstruction of it into an instrument to be used by one man against the people he would rule. The incremental approach of the NYTimes is looking at the dots waiting for the big picture to emerge.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The series, thus far, skirts the language of authoritarianism and fascism.

    Far be it for the NYT to say the obvious. How many years did it take for it to say Trump was a liar?

    • Harry Eagar says:

      The Times is not alone there. Hardly any papers call lies lies.

      It’s the evil of pseudo-neutrality.

      I had a managing editor who told us we were not allowed to describe anyone as elderly. One of our reporters had done so, and a 90-year-old man (not the one who had been called elderly) had called to complain that he didn’t feel old.

      Newspapers are incredibly touchy and silly about readers. In 1986, I was the first reporter at my paper to get the word condom into a story. Although it happened without my participation, there was a week-long fight among the editors whether to run my story.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It seems probable that Trump’s second term will do more than increase the retribution. In imitation of Mike Johnson, Trump will deem his re-election an Act of God, and stir up the fire and brimstone. He will want the payback to be biblical, and he’ll hire only people who think the same way throughout his administration. Their filtering for such people will make BushCheney’s extreme filtering, their endless search for a plethora of neophyte Liberty U. graduates, taste like plain porridge.

    I think that brings up a danger even greater than four more years of the worst President in American history, as if that were possible. His new team of biblical zealots will move heaven and earth to institutionalize their changes in law and governance, in an effort to prevent a successor President-for-Life from undoing them.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      I doubt trump really feels the passion and the visceral love of Christ that some (perhaps) of the advocates say they do.

      Looking for acolytes from places like LibertyU (or PraegerU!) will find the same type of people willing to sell whatever souls they have for a position of power. Fortunately many of these types are pretty mindless, but unfortunately easily directed.

      We could end up with the perfect three-legged stool. All three legs based on some cultish/clownish viewpoints that will quickly crumble under the weight of the elephant.

      • CowboyinBRLA says:

        Of course Trump doesn’t feel the evangelical passion. Like everything else in his world, it’s a means to an end, something (and someones) to use to advance his goals, and when they’re no longer helpful, they’ll be discarded.

        That may take longer in the case of white evangelicals because their support is key to his electoral success. But he’ll jetison them just like anyone else, if he decides they’re no longer a net gain for him.

        [Thanks for updating your username to meet the 8 letter minimum. /~Rayne]

  10. Rugger_9 says:

    The politicization of the entire administration (even the USSS is suspect that that’s saying something given its official mission) was ongoing, and FWIW also occurred in every other GOP administration since Eisenhower. It really accelerated under Shrub and Defendant-1, however.

    In all of that the NYT along with the rest of the courtier press considered that the access to the halls of power was far more important that truth-telling. There is no way that Watergate would be reported by today’s access ‘journalists’. J6 and its attendant conspiracy, plus the infestation of Russian and PRC spies (plus others) to administration officials including POTUS was far worse than Watergate, but you wouldn’t know it from the Times or the WashPo.

    That’s even before our current breathless reporting about ‘high’ interest rates (I remember when the prime rate was in the high teens) and 40-year high inflation (fun fact, most lottery lump sums are discounted at 4%, which is the rate from the 20th century onward), neglecting to mention the really strong jobs rates. How strong? Strong enough for some Aussie billionaire to bitch that workers wouldn’t work for what he was willing to pay and said that pushing the unemployment rate way up would make the workers more docile. The Aussie press jumped on him until he apologized, but our overlord wannabes here feel the same way if quieter about it.

  11. Rugger_9 says:

    I mentioned the jobs specifically because of the crater made by the prior administration, the paper (and other) shortages everywhere, and really piss-poor GDP growth that Defendant-1 blamed on Obama even though the bad news started about a year or so after he took office. The courtier press nodded and printed that story line because that is what their RW-leaning editors wanted.

    Deficits and debt, IIRC Mike Johnson voted for the tax cuts so for him to scream he has to cut IRS funding says more about social engineering priorities than fiscal responsibility. It’s also a very standard GOP playbook, such as Walker’s administration in WI that pushed through massive tax cuts for the ‘job creators’ like Foxconn and other rich folk and then suddenly had to push through Act 10 to close the resulting budget gap. Act 10 ripped apart the progressive state. Look at any reputable economic analysis and basically over the last 50+ years debt load rises under GOP administrations and Democratic administrations drop it down with surpluses.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Mike Johnson’s first bill after become Speaker makes a lie of Republicans’ claim to be deficit hawks. Cutting $14 billion from the IRS budget would significantly increase the deficit, by several multiples of that cut. And he’d increase the budget by the amount of the aid.

  12. ernesto1581 says:

    “…their RW-leaning editors…”
    Are they really or are they just scared shitless to be left out of the access journalism parimutuals?

    Re: Walker & Foxconn (such an appropriate name). Walker sent out the junior varsity to play the Globetrotters in 2017 and nothing has been done in Mt Pleasant remotely resembling the deal agreed upon in 2018. A new agreement was reached in early 2021 whereby Foxconn reduced its planned investment from $10 billion, with 13,000 new workers to be employed by 2022, to $672 million with 1,454 new jobs possible. Tax incentives have been somewhat reduced (they are supposed to be performance-based) and eminent domain acquisitions did proceed apace but five years later, the site remains largely undeveloped.
    There were some interesting side-bets Foxconn laid: with Univ Wisconsin involving “innovation centers” in several satellite cities; a partnership with We Energies to build a solar farm in Mt Pleasant; and a car manufacturing company acquired in Ohio in 2021, supposedly with an eye to EV battery manufacture in Mt Pleasant. But so far, nothing with nothing.

    • Harry Eagar says:

      Sometimes, it was better to have a RW editor. A the resident LW (actually just a New Dealer), the RWers were more hesitant to hold me back (probably for fear of seeming to be following their politics instead of — as we newspapermen pretend to do, ignoring them) than the LWers were.

      I was lucky in my publishers. In my first day on my bet, longest job, a little, white-haired guy came up, tuck out his hand and said, “I’m Colin Cameron and I’m the publisher. You write what you want.” Then he walked off. And I did.

      We newspaper guys are terrible self-censorers.

    • theartistvvv says:

      Illinois was trying for the Faxconn deal at the time; I believe any disappointment at not getting it has melted away.

  13. e.a. foster says:

    A second term of Trump and his gang? Yikes, I’m too old for that. It was bad enough having to watch the first term. A second term with Trump as President isn’t just a problem for the U.S.A., but for other countries also.
    Having a neutral civil service is important for the continuation of democracy. Once a government decides only those who agree with them, regardless of what they do, are going to work for them, citizens won’t get equal treatment. Now of course we all understand prejudice, etc. but all in all most countries “hold it together”. If Trump were re elected and persued his goals with the assistance of his coconspirators, things will not turn out well for any one except Trump. If you are not there for Trump, lie, steal, cheat, he’ll go after you also. Look where his last group of “supporters” are today. He certainly hasn’t done anything to help a many of them. the rioters are in jail, his political white collar types are making deals and some maybe whiped out financially.
    Started reading the newspapers when I was about 8 or 9. Approx 25 years ago there was a definite deterioration all across Canada. Newspaper are a business and the only thing most owner/ publishers, are interested in how much money they can make and how much control they can have to influence the public to help along their political friends.
    The U.S.A. is resilient though. They survived Trump and his cronies, the country won even with the 6 Jan insurrection and the elected President, Biden, was confirmed. Nice work.

    When Trump went bankrupt back in the day, I remember one tradesperson who spoke to the press regarding the impact on him and his family when Trump stiffed him for $8K and change. That said everything some one ever needed to know about Trump.

    Watching Trump now, my impression is, he is loosing it. When he is speaking or writing on his truth social, something has shifted. He maybe under a great deal of stress but there is something missing.

    6 Jan. was a very scary day. Living in Canada watching it all on t.v., don’t want to ever have to go through that again. Next time the U.S.A. may not be able to recover. For those who are on Trump’s “list” take note. He isn’t going to forget anything. He will get even if re elected and the current Speaker has an agenda which reminds me of the taliban.

  14. Desidero says:

    Barr also helped sideline the Trump financial improprieties tip the Italians gave him & Durham when they were over looking for dirt.

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