Alarms and Excursions: The biggest loser in the “Russia hoax” story is the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal

This final edition contains two paragraphs (both in bold), because the newsletter’s bulldog (subscriber) edition stopped one sentence short of the point.

The last slow-motion replay of the confusion that accompanied the election of Donald Trump in the long-ago autumn of 2016 was released to the public last week.  Special Counsel John Durham’s report joined the 484-page review by Justice Department Inspector Michael Horowitz on the shelf, along with the two-volume report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, all of them supposedly motivated by the FBI’s Operation Hurricane Crossfire investigation of Trump’s connections with Russia.

I couldn’t let the occasion pass without saying something about where the various questions were first broached:  on the front pages of leading American newspapers. The disagreement between Horowitz and Durham boiled down to whether the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign was “adequately predicated” by the information received. Horowitz thought yes; Durham thought no. Future historians, however, will look beyond legalistic wrangling to see the story whole.

I leave aside the Senate Intelligence Committee 2020 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, because I wrote nothing about it. The bipartisan report confirmed the Intelligence Community Assessment of January 2017, that Russia tried to swing the 2016 election to Trump. Here, the story is mainly a reminder of what went on among newspapers behind the scenes.

First, recall the high points of that turbulent summer. The ongoing ruckus over Hillary Clinton’s emails. WikiLeaks release of some of her campaign’s messages. its contents. FBI director James Comey’s exoneration of Clinton for having maintained a private email server. Trump’s call of attention to 30,000 missing emails: “Russia, if you’re listening….” The sudden appointment of pro-Russia Ukraine lobbyist Paul Manafort as Trump campaign chairman. The long history of Trump’s own business dealings with wealthy Russians. Comey’s last-minute announcement of the discovery of Anthony Weiner’s misplaced laptop computer, that contained some unexamined Clinton emails.

Then came the events after November. The 22-day tenure of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. Emergent accounts of “the Steele Dossier.”   The January briefings of Presidents Obama and Trump by four national security chiefs, describing questions that had been raised. Trump’s firing of Comey.  Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s Oval Office visit the next day. The strong-man handshake with Putin in Helsinki.

Now to the back story. Star reporter Devlin Barrett quit The Wall Street Journal to become The Washington Post’s top man on the FBI beat. Deputy WSJ editorial page editor Bret Stephens quit for a column at The New York Times, and began a weekly conversation with fellow columnist Gail Collins in which the neo-conservative and the liberal traded barbs and compliments in a conspicuously civil manner. WSJ editor in chief Gerard Baker was quietly removed from the news side of the paper, by its Murdoch family owners, and given a column on the op-ed page instead.

In 2008, Peter Baker became the chief White House correspondent at the NYT, after many years covering presidents for The Washington Post; he and his wife, The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, published The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, in 2022. Dan Balz remained the WPost’s principal national political commentator. And star reporter Maggie Haberman emerged as the exemplar-in-chief of a style of independent reporting extolled last week NYT publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, in an over-long but to-the-point essay in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The loser in all this has been the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, which have been all in for Trump, from before the beginning of his presidency until nearly the end. It’s up to others to prove this. I depend on a trio of columnists to follow the story where they think it has gone: Holman Jenkins, Jr.; Daniel Henninger; and Kimberly Strassel. Jenkins is the one whom I read regularly; all three have been enthusiastic promoters of Durham’s preposterously narrow police procedural rendition of events.

The WSJ Editorial Board yesterday focused on the long-since discredited Steele dossier to make their case: “Now the Durham report makes clear that the Mueller team failed to investigate how the collusion probe began as a dirty trick by the Clinton campaign and how the FBI went along for the ride.” There’s no free link for this piece; four years exploring a rabbit hole produces a bad case of tunnel vision, nothing more. See yesterday’s column by Peggy Noonan (subscription required), in the same paper, for a much more sensible view.

The other day columnist Gerry Baker did produce an interesting surprise (subscription required):  a what-if endorsement of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s possibilities as a 2024 presidential contender. “If Trump and DeSantis both stumble, don’t rule out a late entry by the Virginia governor.”  The 25-year Carlyle Group veteran upset former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in 2021, apparently finding a path past Trump. Wrote Baker:

[T]he Virginia governor has established himself as the foremost exponent of what we might term a new Republican fusionism: happy culture warrior, taking on the establishment orthodoxies on critical race theory, transgender rights and the rest of the extremist woke tyranny. But he’s also scored governing successes on the economy, delivering a solid tax cut and focusing efforts on lifting living standards for the poorest Virginians.

WSJ editorial page editor Paul Gigot is approaching retirement, twenty years after replacing the legendary Robert Bartley.  I once believed that the Murdochs couldn’t do better than to hire back Bret Stephens, who, until he left for the NYT had been a leading contender for the job. That seems less likely now.

Meanwhile, never mind Fox News and its recently dismissed faux-populist commentator Tucker Carlson.  The WSJ’s editorial pages are far more important as a nursery of ideas about America’s conservative tradition. What the Murdoch family needs now is a nimble “Republican fusionist” in the editor’s chair – to nurture whatever that tradition is next to become.

The new editor’s first task will be to put an end to the Editorial Board’s repetitive support of the first of Trump’s two great lies: that there was no legitimate reason for the Justice Department or the Senate’s Intelligence Committee to probe the newly inaugurated president’s Russia connections.



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