Getting Down to Business

Monday is the first official day of our new TPM Investigations Desk. So our editors don’t kill me, I want to be clear that no one should expect a flood of exclusives on day or two or three or even in week one. We’re building a new part of the editorial team, a new editorial process within our organization. It will be an incremental build. One new reporter starts Monday. I expect a second member of the Investigations Desk to start in July. And with luck we’ll be able to add a third next month as well, though it may take until August for that.

The Investigations Desk is part of a broad recommitment to TPM’s tradition of muckraking and investigative digging. It’s by means only about the Russia investigation. But in the nature of things that will be a big focus for some time to come. With that in mind, I was spending some time today trying to articulate as concisely as I was able just what we’re looking for, just what we’re trying to find out.

I approached this as a matter of thinking through editorial strategy. But I thought I would share it because it’s also a statement of what about the story matters and what the story even is. Among non-Trumpers, for every three people obsessed with the Russia story there is at least one who says it’s a distraction from Obamacare repeal, a new McCarthyism, a conspiracy theory vehicle for xenophobia and sundry other hot takes. By and large, I think these points are nonsense. But of course there are people who’ve gone entirely off the deep end or simply lost sight of the forest because there are so many trees.

As an editor, my concern is more focus. Russia is a big country. The US is a big country. People in each are connected to each other in various ways. My interest is in keeping a close eye on what is important and what is merely interesting. As you’ve no doubt seen I’m very interested in Felix Sater and Michael Cohen, just to pick a couple examples. But my real interest in them is how they illuminate Donald Trump’s relationship with key figures in Russia. Sater’s is a bizarre and fascinating story. But in himself, I don’t care about that. There are a lot of gangsters out there. I’m interested only inasmuch as he helps me understand what’s up or not up with Donald Trump.

With all that, here’s what I’m trying to figure out.

1. What did Russia do during the 2016 election?

2. Why did Russia seek to elect Donald Trump?

3. Was Trump an unwitting beneficiary or did Russia’s help grow out of a relationship with the Russian government or Russian nationals in which President Trump or his close associates were active participants? Did Trump or his close associates have inside knowledge of Russian subversion campaign? Put most broadly, if Russia conspired to subvert the 2016 election, was Trump or his close associates party to that conspiracy?

4. What is the nature of President Trump’s current relationship with Russia?

No, it’s not rocket science or any ingenious formulation. But this is helpful for me in keeping track of what is important and what is merely interesting.

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