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What toilets say about the latest Trump news cycle

By Jon Allsop

Back in February, Axios shared an early finding from a (still) forthcoming book by Maggie Haberman, a reporter at the New York Times who had heard that, while Donald Trump was president, he apparently would flush documents down the toilet in the White House residence. At the time, Trump denied this, accusing Haberman of making the story up to sell her book and branding her “Maggot Haberman”—but early yesterday, Haberman shared the (very soggy) receipts, again via Axios, which published photos Haberman obtained showing scraps of paper in the bowls of toilets at the White House and overseas, with visible markings in Trump’s distinctive Sharpie scrawl. As the day went on, Haberman popped up repeatedly on CNN to insist that the photos are no laughing matter. “If it was a fireplace, if it was a shredder, if it was almost anything else, it would still be the same,” she said. “It prompts laughs, but it's actually not a funny issue.”
 
This is because destroying presidential records is a violation of federal law, and Trump has form in this area: When Axios first shared Haberman’s reporting in February, it did so in the middle of a much broader news cycle about Trump’s document-retention practices, with the Washington Post, in particular, leading the way on a series of stories about the National Archives having to piece together papers that Trump had torn up and retrieve materials, some of them classified, from his Mar-a-Lago residence after he left office. At the time, the Archives reportedly referred the matter to the Justice Department, though it wasn’t clear what—or if—the latter was investigating.

Yesterday, this news cycle started to spin again with a vengeance—and not just as a result of Haberman’s toilet photos. In the early evening, Trump announced, with characteristic restraint, that FBI agents had executed a search warrant at—or, in his words, “raided and occupied”—Mar-a-Lago, apparently spending several hours there and cracking into a safe. (Trump wasn’t present; his attorney Christina Bobb, of One America News infamy, was.) Journalists including Haberman reported that the search was related to Trump’s handling of classified and other documents, though details otherwise remained scarce; Justice Department and FBI officials wouldn’t talk, while the White House reportedly learned of the operation from the media. The paucity of information, of course, did not stop the search from driving the news agenda all night long. There was talk of Trump facing possible disqualification from public office (though I wouldn’t advise holding your breath). On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow told her viewers they might want to buy and keep a print newspaper today, because “your grandkids’ grandkids someday are going to look at that old physical newspaper you were able to save from August 9, 2022, and they are going to goggle at the thought of what your life must have been like.” (“If you’ve got MSNBC parents, give them a call tonight,” one Twitter user wrote. “This is their Christmas.”)
 
The search was a huge story, too, in right-wing media, where talking heads immediately and breathlessly jumped the shark (to use an idiom Trump would hate). Hosts and guests on Fox characterized the search as “a preemptive coup,” “thug, police-state tactics,” “the Rubicon being crossed,” and reminiscent of “the Stasi”—and that was just Buck Sexton. Tucker Carlson, mercifully, was off for the night, but Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham soon came on and continued the hyperbole, with the latter calling for “accountability” for “everyone” when “we get power back.” (Score one for Team No, Rupert Murdoch isn’t breaking with Trump.) 
 
Yesterday’s Trump news cycle wasn’t limited to the stories about his treatment of public records and its consequences. Ever since he left office, revelations from Trump books—written both by former Trump officials and reporters—have repeatedly kickstarted furious news cycles in their own right (even when the revelations haven’t been that interesting or revelatory). We saw that again yesterday, not only with Haberman’s pre-release dump (pun certainly not intended), but also around a highly anticipated new tome from Susan B. Glasser, a reporter at The New Yorker, and Peter Baker, Haberman’s colleague at the Times. (Glasser and Baker are married.) The New Yorker published an excerpt from the book focused on Trump’s “war” with top Pentagon officials, not least Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who has been a prominent character in—and, apparently, source for—several of the aforementioned Trump books. Glasser and Baker obtained a resignation letter that Milley drafted, but did not submit, in 2020 after he was pictured walking with Trump ahead of the latter’s violent Bible photo op in Lafayette Square. They also reported that Trump once asked why top military brass couldn’t be “totally loyal” to their commander in chief, like “the German generals in World War II.”
 
Other Trump stories in the news cycle at the moment concern his policy legacy, which is perhaps less common these days. Reports circulated yesterday that talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump blew up, could soon bear fruit. And, the day before, The Atlantic dropped a buzzy new cover story: a meticulously reported, near-thirty-thousand-word history of the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents en masse at the border. “I’m one of the many reporters who covered this story in real time,” Caitlin Dickerson, the story’s author, wrote. “Despite the flurry of work that we produced to fill the void of information, we knew that the full truth about how our government had reached this point still eluded us.” 
 
Dickerson spent eighteen months trying to reconstruct that full truth, obtaining documents using public-records laws and interviewing more than a hundred and fifty sources, including key players in the implementation of the policy who had not spoken extensively on the record to this point. Among many other findings, Dickerson found that Trump administration officials misled the media about child separations at almost every stage—claiming that they weren’t happening, then celebrating the fact that they were, then saying (dishonestly) that they were an unfortunate side effect of necessary border-enforcement work. Top staffers at the Department of Homeland Security themselves didn’t believe or even know about media coverage of the policy and the extreme cruelty with which it was being implemented—a “fog of denial,” Dickerson writes, that “abruptly dissipated” after ProPublica published blood-curdling audio of children crying out for their parents. Trump’s comms staff asked the Justice Department to explain the policy to the press. No one wanted to do so.
 
Dickerson’s story is currently among the most popular on The Atlantic’s website, and the depth of her reporting has won deserved plaudits. As far as I can tell, though, it wasn’t covered in any depth on cable news last night as the Mar-a-Lago search flooded the zone. In many ways, the latter is understandable: while I won’t be rushing out to buy a print paper just yet, federal law enforcement executing a search warrant on a former president is clearly a highly significant development, and the apparent grounds for it are intriguing given that Trump’s handling of official records hasn’t been prominent in recent reporting on his imminent legal woes. The search was also fresh news, whereas the details in Dickerson’s story mostly date back a while.
 
Not all the details though—the legacy of the child-separation policy continues to this day—and even those from years ago deserve our urgent attention now that they have been unearthed. Dickerson’s article is a great example of what Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, has referred to in the past as “journalism as long game, a sport that more of us need to be playing”—showing how learning the full truth about matters of great concern can take years. It’s also a reminder that, while the disgraceful manner in which Trump left the White House has (again, understandably) dominated coverage of his post-presidency, the policies he pursued while in office still matter, too. And the story helps sharpen the stakes of Trump’s desire to return to office beyond the obvious threat to electoral democracy that that would entail; indeed, Dickerson has new reporting suggesting that Trump never wanted to end the child-separation policy and would quickly restore it if given the chance. 
 
In February, with the furor around Trump’s records practices, alongside other Trump stories, taking center stage, I wrote that the bar for centering Trump in the news cycle these days should be high given that he is no longer the president and other important stories demand our focus. Trump’s ongoing threats to democracy, I wrote, cleared that bar, as did the records-retention story—which, ultimately, is itself about democracy, and the right of citizens to know how power has been wielded on their behalf. Fast forward a few months and the Mar-a-Lago search obviously clears this bar, too (even if some of the speculation around it is unhelpful). So, in a different way, does Dickerson’s story. My problem, back in February, lay more in the media’s breathless hyping of less-interesting historical details and repetitive punditry about Trump’s character, grip on the Republican Party, ongoing electoral potency, and so forth. We’re still seeing a lot of that. It would be nice if granular reporting like Dickerson’s could break through the noise a bit more, and endure.
 
Dickerson’s story also clears the bar because it isn’t solely a story about Trump, but also an indictment of those who served under him and the broader US immigration system. Some of those who designed and implemented the child-separation policy predated Trump’s time in office—Tom Homan, who would go on to serve as acting ICE director under Trump, first proposed a version of the policy in 2014, only for Obama officials to say no—and, in some cases, are still part of the federal bureaucracy now. 
 
As far as I can see, toilets are mentioned twice in Dickerson’s story. She reports that some of the children snatched from their parents under Trump were so young that they weren’t potty-trained yet, but the other reference dates further back, to the mid-2010s, when an official recalls having seen more than eighty teenagers crammed into a facility with a single toilet. Both details are about as far from funny as you’re likely to get.

Below, more on the latest Trump news cycle: 

  • How the search went down: Reporters on criminal-justice beats sometimes get wind of forthcoming searches, but they didn’t in the case of the Mar-a-Lago search, CNN’s Brian Stelter notes. The search “happened so quietly, so secretly, that it wasn't caught on camera at all,” he writes. “For the most part reporters didn't catch wind of the FBI action until after it was over. By the time local TV news cameras showed up outside the club, there was almost nothing to see.” (News crews did capture Trump supporters gathering outside Mar-a-Lago in the wake of the search, with the Times reporting that some were aggressive toward reporters.) The search was first reported by Peter Schorsch, the publisher of a local outlet called Florida Politics. He told Slate that he heard about it from a “longtime source in Republican politics who has a law enforcement background.”
     
  • An update: Dickerson’s story wasn’t the only recent update on Trump’s child-separation policy; last week, Michelle Brané, the head of a task force that Biden established upon taking office, said that the new administration has succeeded in reuniting four hundred children with their parents. “More than 5,000 families were separated under Trump’s 2018 ‘zero tolerance’ policy and a 2017 pilot program and advocates estimate over 1,000 remain separated,” NBC’s Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff wrote. “Because the Trump administration did not keep records of which children were separated and where they were sent, the task force and lawyers working on behalf of separated families have had a difficult time identifying families to offer them the chance of reunification.”
     
  • The toilet beat: Writing for CJR in 2019, I profiled Flush, a high-end French magazine devoted to covering toilets as a lens on society; its early issues, for example, included stories on sanitary conditions in migrant camps and prisons. Aude Lalo, the magazine’s founder, told me that Flush was an exercise in journalisme par l’objet, or “journalism through the object.” Earlier this year, my colleague Feven Merid also profiled a magazine about toilets: Facility, which is based in New York City. The editors saw it as a way to address topics they were interested in, “including public spaces, city infrastructure, and the environment, while thinking about gender, race, class, and disability.”
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Other notable stories: 

  • 1 big thing: Axios is selling itself to Cox Enterprises, which already owned a minority stake in the company, in a deal that values Axios at 525 million dollars. Axios’s cofounders—Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz—will be minority shareholders and will continue to run the company, which now plans to expand its subscription and local-news offerings. Cox, a longtime family-owned company, also owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dayton Daily News, but Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton notes that it had seemed to be getting out of the media business in recent years to focus on selling cable and car-related services, making the Axios acquisition somewhat surprising. “Perhaps Axios’s establishmentarian bullet-pointing can serve as another crack at the national political market” for Cox, Benton writes.
     
  • Last week, as he announced that a US drone strike had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan, Biden described Zawahiri as a mastermind both of 9/11 and of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Carol Rosenberg and Charlie Savage, of the Times, note that this characterization was subsequently “echoed in many news accounts”—but now report that military and counterterrorism experts were surprised by it, with one describing Biden’s account of Zawahiri’s involvement in the Cole bombing as a “talking point” rather than a “factual narrative.” Indictments that the US has filed in the Cole case do not portray Zawahiri as its mastermind. Lawyers for both Cole and 9/11 defendants have now asked prosecutors to provide proof for Biden’s claims.
     
  • Also for the Times, Colin Moynihan and Jonah E. Bromwich report on a pair of lawsuits that were filed on Sunday against the right-wing sting group Project Veritas, with former employees “portraying a ‘highly sexualized’ work culture where daytime drinking and drug use were common and the group benefited from employees who worked additional hours without pay.” Antonietta Zappier, a former Veritas staffer, made a range of claims about James O’Keefe, the group’s founder; O’Keefe dismissed Zappier as “disgruntled” and her claims as “false.” (Veritas is currently suing the Times for defamation in a separate matter. Earlier this year, Caleb Pershan reported on the unusual case for CJR.)
     
  • Stephen Battaglio, of the LA Times, reports on “an unusual education and marketing campaign” being led by the TV-station owner E.W. Scripps, which is pushing the benefits of over-the-air antennas that enable viewers to watch broadcast networks for free at a time when cable TV and streaming services are eating into household budgets. “Promoting antenna use clearly benefits the TV stations Scripps owns,” Battaglio writes, “but there is a public service element to the campaign as well.” Broadcast networks offer local news and remain on air during weather emergencies even if the internet goes out.
     
  • Last week, Hunter Cooke wrote for Sports Business Journal about a wave of layoffs at news sites that cover esports. “2022 has been a brutal year for media that cover esports. The cutbacks have left editors and writers at the remaining publications and aspiring journalists distraught about the industry’s future,” Cooke writes. Staffers “who agreed to speak with Sports Business Journal on background say they’re worried about the future of the sites that cover the beats they’ve dedicated years of their lives to.”
     
  • Carlos Lozada, the nonfiction book critic at the Post, is joining the Times as an opinion columnist. In other media-jobs news, Tom Nichols, who already had a newsletter at The Atlantic, is joining the magazine as a staff writer. Christianity Today named Russell Moore as its editor in chief, hailing him as “possibly the most prominent evangelical Christian public voice in the country.” And Adweek promoted Jason Lynch to editor.
     
  • In recent years, our colleagues at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism have reported on the growth of partisan sites that pose as local news organizations to reach voters. As the midterms approach, Tow is on the lookout for further examples of the trend—including in print form—and soliciting tips from readers. You can get in touch with them here.
     
  • If you’ve seen an image of Biden with evil laser eyes online recently, it may well have been shared by the White House or its press operation. Politico explains how the “Dark Brandon” meme went from Weibo to West Wing cooptation, via Reddit and TikTok.
     
  • And Nieman Lab’s Benton asked Facebook’s new conversational AI bot whether Facebook is to blame for the decline of the news business. The bot blamed Craigslist. 
Questions or comments about what you’d like to read with your coffee? 
Reach today's newsletter editor, Jon Allsop, at jallsop@cjr.org.
 
Our weekly podcast on media news, The Kicker, is available on Apple PodcastsStitcher, and SoundCloud.

Catch up with all of our coverage at CJR.org.
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