Now Would Be a Great Time for the Press to Learn How to Cover Trump

The other great time was seven years ago. Or four. Or two.

This content comes from the latest installment of our weekly Breaking the Vote newsletter out of VICE News’ D.C. bureau, tracking the ongoing efforts to undermine the democratic process in America. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.

The least important detail of Cassidy Hutchinson's January 6 committee testimony is now the most hyped.

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One reason is the shiny-object permanence we all suffer from to some degree. Former President Donald Trump trying to grab his SUV's steering wheel and lunging for an agent truly is the salacious stuff memes are made of (nice one, Monica.)

Then there’s the real reason. Trumpist dead-enders very likely used the anecdote to cloud Hutchinson's damning testimony of Trump's potential criminality, and willing Washington reporters let them. The episode reveals everything about the selfish bad habits that (still!) turn ostensibly well-meaning journalists into the propaganda tools of our most reliable liars.

On Tuesday, Hutchinson, a former top aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified–under oath–to a shocking and legally meaningful litany of allegations. They ranged from Trump’s foreknowledge that his Jan. 6 crowd was armed, to Rudy Giuliani and Meadows seeking pardons for their coup-related conduct.

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Within hours, several well-known Washington reporters had the pushback. Not to the testimony that Trump knowingly sent an armed mob toward the Capitol, or that he knew rioters were attacking police and threatening Mike Pence and for hours did nothing. The denial was limited to the most attention-grabbing and inconsequential part of the day: the SUV anecdote. Critically, the denial was anonymous. And the reporters who had it rushed to tweet.

No one denied that Trump was angry, or that he wanted to go to the Capitol. But it was all the right-wing media ecosystem needed. The retweets and Fox News segments snowballed into a full-fledged disinformation attack on the credibility of Cassidy Hutchinson’s hours of sworn testimony. If the SUV episode can’t be trusted, then you, dear viewer, have permission to dismiss the entire, cognitively troubling appearance as fake.

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The denials of the SUV episode came from sources “close to the Secret Service.” I don't know who that person is, but the mostly likely source is former deputy White House chief of staff Tony Ornato or someone speaking on his behalf. Trump placed Ornato in his senior White House job as a detail from his post at the Secret Service. He was, and remains, a Trump loyalist and a Secret Service official. Hutchinson never claimed to have witnessed the SUV lunge, only that Ornato told her it happened. 

It should be stated plainly: Ornato, like his boss Trump, has a reputation for lying. He also has a reputation for Trump loyalty bordering on unprofessionalism. So does Bobby Engel, the Secret Service agent who was in the SUV with Trump at the time of the alleged lunge, according to what Hutchinson says Ornato told her. I don’t have a way of knowing whether Hutchinson’s anecdote is accurate, or whether the denial is true. And neither do the reporters who rushed to post it.

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Reporters are expected to report the news they get. But they’re also expected to exercise critical judgment and healthy skepticism. That thought bubble might have looked something like:

Hutchinson’s testimony was public and under oath, the anonymous denials are not. Hutchinson has no reason to lie about hearing this SUV detail, while her detractors have every reason to. Hutchinson has no known track record of working to discredit investigations by any dishonest means necessary, while Trumpworld is infamous for it. So if I report this, I should do it with lots of caveats and context, to minimize the chances that dishonest operators use me to muddy up a bunch of testimony that people should really pay attention to.

This is familiar territory: Trumpists unleashed similar tactics on the Mueller report. The FBI’s missteps in securing FISA warrants meant the entire investigation was phony and clearly exonerated Trump from any connection to Russians. Only it wasn’t and it didn’t. They used them in the prosecution of Michael Flynn, where Trump fanned a phony panic about the  “unmasking” of American contacts of foreign surveillance targets, to pretend all of Flynn’s actual crimes were made up. They weren’t. 

Why would reporters charge in and risk the low stakes of the SUV anecdote for the very high stakes of the rest of Hutchinson's testimony? For the clout, sure. Whoever gets the “Secret Service agent denies it” tweet first gets the attention. But another reason is a form of political reporting where any incremental process development is hot news, as long as you’re the one to report it. That works great when the stakes are some senator’s latest bluff in a budget standoff, but works way less well when they’re a predictable propaganda onslaught from the perpetrators of an attempted coup.

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Reporters might’ve also considered Tuesday’s other stunning evidence, which is that Trumpworld loyalists appear to be tampering with committee witnesses. We’ve since learned that Trump is using donors’ money to pay for the lawyers of lower-level witnesses who stay loyal when questioned. If you think it’s a coincidence that once Hutchinson decided she had more to tell the panel, she dropped her Trumpworld lawyer, hired a new one, and testified, I’ve got a truck full of wallpaper-safe premium ketchup to sell you.

 If Hutchinson got it wrong on what she was told, or if the SUV episode never happened, or if she misheard, let Ornato and other deniers say so–publicly, under oath, and under penalty of perjury. Even if they do, it won’t erase the damning, mostly direct testimony she gave on Tuesday about Trump’s astounding, and potentially criminal behavior. 

And it especially doesn’t change the fact that, after seven years of Trump and his acolytes flooding the zone with garbage, many in the mainstream media still haven’t changed their fundamental instincts for covering him. These hearings may be reducing the likelihood Trump runs again, but if he does run, it’s truly terrifying that he can count on using the political press as easily as ever.

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T.W.I.S.™ Notes

It can be really hard to tell what federal criminal investigators are up to until they send up a smoke signal like issuing a subpoena or raiding a coup plotter’s house. It’s been another banger for This Week in Subpoenas. 

-Coup phone, who dis? 

Last week we learned that the feds dropped a big search warrant on Jeffrey Clark, the  environmental attorney who pleaded with Trump for the chance to transform the Justice Department into his personal coup propaganda operation. What we didn’t know then is that: a) Coup architect John Eastman carries his phone in an awesome clip-in belt holster, and b) Federal agents took that bad boy off his Dockers pursuant to a warrant on the very same day Jeffrey Clark was getting searched. 

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Now we know that Clark, who maneuvered to lead DOJ in a lying campaign for Trump, and Eastman, who concocted the fake electors scheme and the plot to make VP Mike Pence its illegal instrument, are both likely targets of criminal investigations. The feds had to convince a judge they were likely to find evidence of a crime on Eastman’s hip in order to search him outside a Sante Fe restaurant. 

BTW, where was John Eastman eating when the federal agents showed up? Stop by for VICE News reporter and Sante Fe native Anna Merlan’s online quest-with-friends to find answers. Stay for the revelation that Anna took piano lessons from the lovely daughter of one of Richard Nixon’s Watergate felons. 

-Cipollone again, naturally

“We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said, according to Cassidy Hutchinson. Cipollone was distraught over the danger, legal and corporal, if Trump went ahead with his plan to lead what became his mob to the Capitol on Jan. 6. So it was that Cipollone was finally subpoenaed by the January 6 committee Wednesday. 

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Rep. Liz Cheney has been goading Cipollone to testify publicly given how uniquely situated (right in the Oval) he is to corroborate mounds of testimony about different wings of the coup plot. So far he’s refused. 

Cipollone already spoke to the committee voluntarily, but the questioning wasn’t under oath or transcribed. In addition to Hutchinson’s sworn testimony about his criminal concerns, we’ve also learned that Cipollone threatened to resign if Trump went ahead with plans to purge DOJ, seize voting machines or make Sidney Powell a Special Counsel. Also new: Cipollone begged Mark Meadows to get Trump to call off the mob that was threatening Mike Pence. 

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Sounds like he might have a few things to share.

-Flouting Thomas

For a while there Ginni Thomas couldn’t wait to appear before the Jan. 6 committee and clear up all the misconceptions about her coup-related activity, like lobbying 29 Arizona lawmakers to overturn the election; or blowing up the White House chief of staff’s phone with texts; or her correspondence with Eastman, former clerk to her “best friend” (and husband) Justice Clarence Thomas. THEN we learned in the January 6 committee that Trump loyalists appear to have been tampering with committee witnesses, and that Trump is paying for the lawyers of witnesses who keep quiet. After all that, Thomas declined to appear, her lawyer saying never mind her offer to talk, there’s no good reason why she should. 

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I’m not saying any of those things are connected. They just happened in exactly that order. 

-Ali oops

Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander took a trip in front of a federal grand jury investigating events on Jan. 6 last week. Alexander said he testified for about three hours and has been assured he’s a witness, not a target. He organized a Capitol Hill rally on Jan. 6 that he says never got off the ground because of, well, the riot. Alexander has also acknowledged he asked some Oath Keepers to “usher” his rally. He’s never been charged in connection with the coup plot. 

Tina wasteland

Let’s not bury the lede here: election conspiracy all-star and BtV misinformation muse Tina Peters lost her bid for the GOP nomination for Colorado Secretary of State Tuesday. It wasn’t really close. Pam Anderson beat Peters by more than 14 points, and even beat Peters on her Mesa County home turf. Overall, Peters came in last in a three-person race. 

Of course, in Tina’s world, a trouncing like that can have but one explanation. VICE News’ David Gilbert has the sad inventory of Peters’ instant claims of fraud–with charts!–and also what Mike Lindell’s been very calmly texting. 

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Peters won’t have long to dwell on her loss, however. She’s due to finally be arraigned Aug. 5 on 10 counts relating to election tampering and fraud. 

Meanwhile, actual expertise won the day over conspiratorial batshittery in El Paso County, Colo., where board-certified forensic pathologist Dr. Leon Kelly easily won his GOP primary against election denier and COVID conspiracist Dr. Rae Ann Weber. VICE News Tonight profiled Kelly a few weeks ago. “It was never even close,” he told me after the election, noting that Colorado Springs voters still seem to care about qualifications for public office. 

Intern-al affairs

We already know that a federal grand jury is probing the scheme to use fake electors to defraud voters. Now, Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s story about his role in pushing fake electors on Jan. 6 has pretty much fallen apart. Johnson started the week saying he knew basically nothing about what amounted to an intern handing off a fake elector list to a staffer. None of that is true.

In fact, Johnson coordinated the attempted transfer of fraudulent slates from Michigan and Wisconsin to Mike Pence just moments before he presided over the electoral count on Jan. 6. And now Johnson, who’s up for reelection, won’t answer questions.

We have to choose. Because Republicans cannot be both loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the Constitution.” — Rep. Liz Cheney, speaking to a mostly GOP audience at the Reagan Library Wednesday

Cert-ifiable — The Supreme Court just had one… hell of a term. Now get ready for October, when the Court could potentially deal a death blow to elections as we know them. I wish that was hyperbole. But yesterday the justices granted “cert” to (that’s robed overlord talk for “agreed to hear”) a case involving the so-called “independent state legislature” theory. This is a conservative legal idea that says state legislatures, and no one else–not courts, governors, secretaries of state, or even state constitutions–have jurisdiction over elections. 

It’s a big deal. The doctrine says state legislatures alone can decide how to draw election maps. But a more expansive interpretation from the court could say that only legislatures can decide how much voter suppression to do, and what results should be certified. Courts would have reduced jurisdiction (or none) to reel legislatures in when they pass voter subversion or disqualify certain voters. 

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In a world where legions of legislators around America pledge fealty to the lie that the election was stolen, you can see the problem. In a state like Wisconsin that’s so heavily gerrymandered only Republicans can win control in a split state, you can see the potential disaster. 

Now, imagine all that being operative while Trump or someone like him launches a coup attempt similar to 2020. A fake elector scheme wouldn’t even be necessary, because sympathetic legislatures in swing states could just… make it so. 

It’s the exact scenario conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig warned was the “Repub­lican blue­print to steal the 2024 elec­tion.” The case is called Moore v. Harper, and it’ll be heard in the fall.  

Q tip — Q is back. They’re posting again. It appears to be completely fake. And supporters don’t care that it’s not real.

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The great intimidator — Violence-invoking podcaster and election conspiracist organizer Joe Oltmann is having a moment. You know him as a right-wing ringleader from Colorado and Tina Peters’ main backer in her alleged criminal pursuits against clean elections. Check out this profile detailing Oltmann’s motivations, his fondness of calling for his opponents to be murdered, and a disturbing political future (he’s no fan of VICE News, which means we’re doing something right). 

 Den of thieves — Shoutout to the GOP field in Tuesday’s Illinois Senate primary, where the losers are all calling fraud and eating each other alive. 

Sucks to be Rudy — Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was full of first-hand conversations with some of the coup plot’s most notorious players. They include Rudy Giuliani, who by Hutchinson’s account, told her on Jan. 2 that “we’re going to the Capitol” on Jan. 6 and that “it’s going to be great.” It’s just the latest example of an inevitable conclusion: No matter where you look around the country, Rudy’s in trouble. 

Givin’ em the Lizness — GOP Rep. Liz Cheney turned up at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. last night, and she wasn’t ambiguous: Donald Trump is trying to unravel democracy and too many Republicans are helping him.

Cheney also debated other Republicans for the GOP nomination for her House seat last night. Do check it out

Earworthy -  You should check out the new podcast “Positively Dreadful” from my friend Brian Beutler at Crooked Media. Brian’s a singularly great analyst of politics and media,, and how the erosion of both is putting critical pressure on our democracy. But this pod is all about how to process these awful trends and find hope and optimism in confronting them. I can recommend the first episode with January 6 committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin.

Violent threats to election workers are common. Prosecutions are not.

FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES

Kevin McCarthy, have you no sense of decency?

FROM THE ATLANTIC

How journalists can spot the signs of autocracy—and help ward it off.

FROM THE WASHINGTON POST

Tagged:

Donald Trump, supreme court, Liz Cheney, Capitol Riot, Tina Peters, january 6 committee, cassidy hutchinson

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