Reporters show what’s behind the Russian investigation through their coverage

Feb. 24, 2018

Reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post said government officials have leaked more information to the media under the current White House administration than they have under any other president. 

Michael Schmidt, a national security reporter for the Times, and Greg Miller, national security correspondent for the Post, said their stories depend on such information. The two have been covering the investigation into Russia’s influence on U.S. elections and President Donald Trump’s campaign.  

Schmidt said most of the leaks came during the first six months of Trump’s presidency. 

“I think that as the president came in, and folks in the government and outside the government saw how he was operating, they felt a willingness, a need to come forward to provide us with information,” Schmidt said last week at the National Press Club. 

The leaks are motivated not only by government officials who are in “dismay” of Trump’s actions, Miller said, but also because of a lack of loyalty in his administration. The chaos in the White House and the uncertainty of how long staff members will keep their jobs could contribute to how much they are willing to talk.

Miller said in an interview after the panel discussion that these type of stories depend on sources rather than documents. 

“It requires constantly scouring the landscape for news sources, but also keeping close touch with long-standing sources to help you make sense of what you’re learning,” he said. 

It’s a difficult assignment because Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, who’s leading the investigation, keeps information about what his team is learning airtight. 

Schmidt said Mueller was never press-friendly to begin with and is aware his office is under a microscope in a way they’ve never been before. “The slightest mistake will destroy them,” he said.

The Justice Department’s special counsel indicted 13 Russians Feb. 16 for their interference in the 2016 presidential election.   

The indictments charge that from their office in St. Petersburg, Russians stole American identities, posed as political activists and used subjects such as religion, race and immigration to trigger division among the American people during the campaign.

Mueller also filed a 32-count indictment against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, former Trump campaign officials, on Feb. 22. They were charged with using fraudulent loans and tax schemes to increase their wealth.  

Schmidt said his story about Trump asking former FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation in May stood out to him the most during his year-long coverage because it elevated the story. 

“It changed the story in a sense where it wasn’t just a Russian collusion story,” he said. “It was a story about the president’s conduct in office.”

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and moderator for the panel, pointed out Miller’s story in June when the CIA informed the Obama administration of Russia’s plan to interfere in the 2016 election. Miller said a quote from an Obama administration official sums up the entire article: “I think we sort of choked.” 

“We in the press are often accused at this moment of being too critical of Trump, or obsessed with Trump or focused on just Trump,” Miller said. “And here’s an instance where we devoted a lot of reporting resources to understanding what happened on Obama’s watch.”

The New York Times and Washington Post staff both received a special George Polk award for their extraordinary effort to reveal the connection between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, which has led to the ongoing investigation by Mueller.

However, Miller said it isn’t the recognition that makes his job rewarding but appreciation from the public.

 “Only in the past year was I getting cards in the mail from readers, notes from people online,” he said. “And there’s lots of criticism as well. But people really seem to be understanding the importance of the role of journalism in the U.S. society.” 

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