Like it or not, the Politico Playbook is a must-read for political writers, even if it’s occasionally a hate-read, so diligently does it parrot conventional wisdom (with a particular fondness for “Dems in disarray” stories). On Thursday, it gave its prime real estate to a “scoop” from New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, an excerpt from their new book, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future.
The story is headlined “‘I’ve Had It With This Guy’: G.O.P. Leaders Privately Blasted Trump After Jan. 6.” It’s full of direct Trump-bashing quotes from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy—the headline quotes McCarthy, and the story reports that he seriously considered telling Trump to resign. But Politico leads with the money quote: “The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us,” McConnell privately told his top advisers, adding, “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is.”
I could have sworn I’d already known at least the basic outlines of that story. That’s because I did: Martin and Times colleague Maggie Haberman reported a lot of it, without the colorful direct quotes, six days after the violent insurrection, under the headline “McConnell is said to be pleased about impeachment, believing it will be easier to purge Trump from the G.O.P.” The pair also reported that McCarthy was asking colleagues “whether he should call on Trump to resign” for his role in stoking the violent attack.
McConnell’s fury has been reported elsewhere: A Washington Post timeline of January 6 events leads with the perspective, and fear, of top McConnell staffers on that awful day. Though all were granted anonymity, their participation in the story reflected their boss’s ire. As I wrote at the time, McConnell had been afraid for his own safety and was widely known to be enraged at Trump. After the House of Representatives impeached Trump—again—at first McConnell refused to say whether he supported conviction in the Senate but took to the floor to blame the disgraced president for the violence. “The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said.“They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
But as the Martin-Burns “scoop” recounts, in the end, once he realized he couldn’t muster the 17 votes needed to convict Trump, the GOP “leader” voted against it. “He didn’t ascend to power by siding with the minority, he explained to a friend,” they report. Later, he and McCarthy blocked a bipartisan commission to investigate what they’d already admitted had happened on January 6.
Now, I get why the new story is explosive. It has curse words! McConnell called the then-president “a son of a bitch”! Wham! What Martin and Haberman merely paraphrased, Martin and Burns report in direct and colorful quotes from both McConnell and McCarthy. And it closes with this damning kicker: “In a Fox News interview in late February 2021, Mr. McConnell was asked whether he would support Mr. Trump in 2024 if the former president again became the G.O.P. nominee for the presidency. Mr. McConnell answered: ‘Absolutely.’”
What an absolute coward.
There are complicated ethical issues around leading political journalists’ holding back genuine news for their books, when contemporaneous reporting of what they’d learned might have made a difference. I’m not making that case here. For all I know, Martin and Burns got the colorful quotes later; Martin and Haberman reported the basic facts in real-time. I can’t and don’t charge that they held anything back.
My quarrel isn’t with the Times reporters’ ethics here. It’s with the entire media’s feigning amnesia about the craven cowardice of these two GOP leaders, and most of their party. They have caved to Trump over and over, going back to the the disgusting Access Hollywood tape. In fact, the Playbook breathlessly hailed the January 12, 2021, Times story, reporting that “The New York Times dropped a bomb of a scoop” that McConnell was “pleased” about impeachment because it would help “purge” Trump from the GOP. Everything old is new again.
The result of that feigned amnesia is a treacherous lack of proportion in political coverage. One party is in thrall to a dangerous authoritarian demagogue, repeatedly indulging him and his racist, antidemocratic supporters. The other party is struggling to reckon with the lasting damage of Covid, to public health and to the economy, and also to reconcile the admittedly fractious elements of its base. Somehow, the second story gets more attention, and criticism, than the first. McConnell and McCarthy are usually treated as legitimate, respectable, credible–though understandably politically minded–instead of collaborators with Trump in the attempted dismantling of democracy.
When political reporters recycle what is already known as “scoops,” and then forget about those scoops and go back to insipid horse-race reporting, it makes their lives easier but the lives of Americans much harder.