I remember James Risen as a top (Pulitzer-winning) investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. He was aggressive and controversial, but he played by the old rules of fact-based, so-called objective journalism, with which I am very familiar from my decades of playing by them.
The norms that defined that style of journalism, which dominated the 20th century, have not exactly disappeared but they certainly no longer dominate. Facts still matter, to me and I hope to you. But journalism has changed, perhaps symbolized by the (troubling, to me) division of the TV news audience into Fox and MSNBC watchers.
Risen has turned up in a new gig, as a columnist for The Intercept, an online publication that arose after the trove of national security materials were leaked by Edward Snowden. Risen’s first Intercept column is provocatively headlined: “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?”
The choice of that final word certainly raises the temperature a few degrees, compared to the usual version of the question: Did Donald Trump collude with Russia to influence the election?, although Risen argues that such collusion, if proven, would be a pretty good way down the path to treason. Treason, Risen notes, is the rare crime that is actually defined in the text of the Constitution, which says:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.
Risen argues that the possible crimes that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate are awfully close to that constitutional definition of treason, if you score Russia as an “enemy” and cooperating with Russia be pretty near “aid and comfort.” Of course, the case for Trump actively cooperating is not made, at least not yet.
Risen’s maiden column was published online just hours before the Friday news that Mueller has charged 13 Russians with the crime of meddling in the U.S. election with the goal, specified in the indictment, of helping Trump win. (The above-linked version was revised to reflect the new charges.) The new indictments do not (nor does anything released to date by Mueller) allege any actions by Trump to collaborate in such meddling.
The column is long and complex. Risen talks about some aspects that have not made big news yet in the United States. And, as columnists may, he speculates on where some of those developments may lead. He also, right at the top of his column, makes clear that he will not be playing the objectivity game where matters Trump or concerned, as in:
I find it hard to write about Donald Trump. It is not that he is a complicated subject. Quite the opposite. It is that everything about him is so painfully obvious. He is a low-rent racist, a shameless misogynist, and an unbalanced narcissist. He is an unrelenting liar and a two-bit white identity demagogue. Lest anyone forget these things, he goes out of his way each day to remind us of them.
Reporters in Risen’s heyday didn’t say such things, but columnists could. So columnist Risen isn’t afraid to let you know how he feels.
But he’s also a systematic, critical thinker. So I appreciated his effort to clarify what he calls the four tracks of the Trump-Russia story, the fourth of which is one most of us haven’t been thinking about in the criminal investigation frame. He wrote:
There are four important tracks to follow in the Trump-Russia story. First, we must determine whether there is credible evidence for the underlying premise that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win. Second, we must figure out whether Trump or people around him worked with the Russians to try to win the election. Next, we must scrutinize the evidence to understand whether Trump and his associates have sought to obstruct justice by impeding a federal investigation into whether Trump and Russia colluded. A fourth track concerns whether Republican leaders are now engaged in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice through their intense and ongoing efforts to discredit Mueller’s probe.