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How Much Of The Trump-Russia Story Is Smoke And How Much Is Fire?

In this week’s politics chat, we examine the smoke-to-fire ratio in the reporting about the ties between Trumpworld and Russia. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): I’m making our usual chatmate Harry continue to work on a piece he’s writing for tomorrow, so he’s skipping our chat today. The four of us, however, are checking back in on the Trump-Russia ties story. FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers gave some interesting testimony on Monday before the House Intelligence Committee. So before we get to our questions, someone give us the main headlines coming out of that hearing — what’s new?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): We knew that the FBI was investigating Russia-Trump ties. Comey just said it publicly for the first time.

The other headline was how Republicans rallied around Trump and tried to change the subject from Russia ties to the anti-Trump government leaks.

micah: OK, so the fact that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election had been reported, but Comey publicly confirmed it. That was the news.

perry: Oh, and Comey and Rogers slapped down Trump’s claims that Obama wiretapped him or that the British did. Again, we already knew the wiretapping didn’t happen. But Comey said it. And Rogers suggested it was bad for international relations.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): “The department has no information that supports those tweets” is a line that feels very 2017.

perry: Comey was almost deadpan in his remarks.

micah: OK, so the questions …

  1. How much smoke is there in the Trump-Russia story vs. 🔥? In other words: Is the media going to regret how much it has covered this, considering the evidence for collusion has not been found?
  2. Is the Republican defense of Trump a smart strategy?
  3. And finally: This investigation could last years, so how much of an albatross will it be for the Trump administration?

Let’s start with the 🚬 vs. 🔥 question.


clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): We don’t know yet because they’re not finished with the investigation.

micah: Well, that means smoke so far, doesn’t it?

clare.malone: But if the FBI sees enough smoke to investigate, then it seems worthy of news coverage.

natesilver: I’d say that it’s obviously a worthy subject for reporting. But there definitely is more smoke than fire so far and there’s been some tendency for claims to be overdrawn.

As I wrote last month, these stories tend to die if they don’t provide specifics — and often they don’t.

clare.malone: Which is amazing, given how much stories used to stick just if they gave the appearance of impropriety.

perry: The Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and the resulting controversies were a kind of fire. I think The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote recently — and I agree with him — that we have something like a cover-up without evidence of a crime (so far).

clare.malone: Thing on the Russia story is how much it’s been back and forth. Take this story from October — the headline on that said “no clear link.” So what people took away was, “no link!”

micah: Which is a reasonable reading. It’s very confusing.

clare.malone: And then a couple of months later, we find ourselves here, with a new spin on that story — still no clear link, but as Perry said, people have been acting awfully suspicious.

natesilver: I think that Oct. 31 story from the The New York Times that Clare linked to really does not hold up well in light of their subsequent reporting.

perry: Agree.

micah: And I’d add the confusion of churn. So, weirdly, we didn’t actually learn anything new on Russia on Monday, yet there’s a new spate of stories. So the smoke-to-fire ratio gets bigger.

perry: Well, the FBI director saying his agency is investigating the campaign of the sitting president feels like a big story, even if not new?

clare.malone: Roger that.

micah: It’s definitely a big story, it’s just not new. And it’s hard to keep track of what’s new and what’s not.

clare.malone: Too much #content.

micah: Yes.

natesilver: It all feels sort of Groundhog Day-ish to me. But I read a lot of news, so things that might be “already knew that” to me might be new to members of the public.

clare.malone: Humblebrag?

micah: Haha.

perry: lol.

micah: It wasn’t even that humble.

I mean, Perry is right that it is easy to lose sight of how crazy a situation we’re in.

natesilver: It’s my job to stay informed, guys!

clare.malone: We should have pulled a man off the street for this chat, to give us some perspective.

micah: I can pretend to be one. I’m really not that well-informed.

perry: I actually think nearly everyone in America knows there is some investigation about Trump and Russia. And that is basically all we know, too.

micah: A majority of people support a special prosecutor, right?

natesilver: Yeah, by about a 2-to-1 margin, according to a CNN poll.

perry: Interesting. I had not seen that. Not as informed as Nate.

micah: Well, no one is, Perry.

natesilver: But it’s a little hard to gauge how much of a priority this is for the public. It’s not an especially easy issue to poll on.

Oh god. I’m actually saying being in the news bubble is pretty unhelpful on this one.

perry: I think that’s true.

natesilver: Because I can easily imagine either overrating or underrating its importance to the public. Also, since it’s been sort of a drip-drip-drip thing, it’s hard to say what effect it has on Trump’s approval ratings, for instance.

clare.malone: Well, I always think back to that poll where Republicans had flipped in the last year on their feelings of favorability toward the Russians. Maybe Trump just ain’t all that worried.

perry: I think the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” guys are going to keep going on Russia, no matter what the public says. And I think they should.

clare.malone: I think we all agree on that.

micah: OK, before we move on, just for perspective, someone give us the “this is crazy” summary. Like, has something like this happened before?

clare.malone: If you don’t know why this is crazy then you should stop reading this chat. Colluding with a foreign government to tilt an election is unprecedented. And that’s the basic allegation.

perry: Well, we are in Nixonland if what happened is what Democrats think happened. So it would be precedented in a certain way.

And I agree with Clare.

micah: Well, right … but isn’t even having the FBI investigate a sitting president for something of this magnitude — even if it proves untrue — pretty unusual?

natesilver: I don’t know. There are a lot of in-between cases where people in Trump’s orbit have various shady dealings with Russia, but they’re a long way from actively conspiring to tip the election.

micah: It’s still possible there are more boring/benign explanations for all the Trump-Russia contacts.

clare.malone: I think Nate’s wrong but not enough to write about it.

perry: Please write about that.

natesilver: Yeah, this chat needs more conflict!

clare.malone: Why are you so OK with a presidential campaign even being under penumbra of suspicion with a foreign government? That, in and of itself, is not normal in American electoral life. And yes, there could be benign explanations, but there is apparently enough for the FBI to look into it — again, not normal — and members of the administration have lied about contacts with Russians, again not normal. So, OK, maybe it turns out they didn’t conspire to tip the election, but I don’t really see why you don’t think this is crazy.

I think it’s crazy you don’t think it’s crazy. You’re getting used to the sky being red instead of blue!

micah: Soviet red, in fact.

(I’m trying to make bad jokes so people don’t miss Harry.)

natesilver: The getting-used-to-the-sky-being-red / frog-in-boiling-water thing is definitely a real problem. But one can also cite the lack of progress on the story. The FBI’s investigation began in July. Every news organization would love to uncover a major scoop like this and has been investigating it, too (although you can argue they didn’t take it seriously enough at first).

clare.malone: So sure, we’re in a holding pattern on the story. Doesn’t mean it’s not a story. Our brain synapses are so used to firing quickly from all the tabbed browsing, but sometimes stories take a long time to develop.

micah: This could take many, many months. OK, we gotta move on …

Next question: Republicans during the hearings on Monday almost universally tried to shift focus to leaks coming out of the administration. Is that a good strategy?

Compare, for instance, how they’ve handled the accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower (pretty explicitly abandoning Trump) to how they’ve handled Russia (spinning on his behalf).

perry: Maybe. At one point, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy was literally naming potential leakers. That has to have a chilling effect.

natesilver: This is another reason why specificity is important. Republicans didn’t really go out of their way to defend Flynn or Sessions. But when there’s just a cloud of suspicion, it’s easy for partisanship to kick in.

perry: The rallying around Trump, on Russia, I was frankly surprised by.

natesilver: There’s a valid point of view, however, that the less specificity Comey provided (and he didn’t provide much), the worse news it is for Trump, since it meant he had more information to protect.

perry: Right. Comey made it seem like a more serious investigation. He implied he was so detailed in his initial comments about Clinton because he had concluded there was no real crime around the e-mail stuff.

clare.malone: Yeah, but doesn’t the fact that there’s literally an explainer about how to read his comments speak volumes, too? I.e., people are going to still have a lot of trouble sifting through exactly what’s what? That gives Republicans an advantage.

natesilver: To some extent Republicans are taking a calculated risk that there isn’t eventually going to be fire.

clare.malone: Yeah.

micah: Please use the 🔥 emoji.

perry: Or that any eventual 🔥 is less clear if it’s a partisan he said-she said, leaving the public confused.

micah: But does it hurt the GOP to defend Trump while there’s not 🔥? Can’t they just flip strategies if anything specific emerges?

perry: Distancing yourself from your party’s president, at least politically, never seems to work. Think Republicans in 2006 and Democrats in 2010 and 2014.

Of course, if there is a real fire, I assume members like John McCain and Lindsey Graham will speak up anyway.

clare.malone: It’s their schtick at this point.

micah: [Nate is running downstairs to pick up food.]

clare.malone: Great. This gives me time to read my beauty blog emails.

micah: What are beauty blog emails?

clare.malone: Ways to exploit the patriarchy’s consumerist hold on women.

micah: lol.

OK, Nate is back with the poke.

Last question: This investigation will probably last many months — if not years. How does it affect Trump’s ability to pursue his agenda if it’s sort of a constant low hum in the background?

clare.malone: That depends on America’s continuing reaction to the Trump era. There are a lot of things we don’t know, like how Trumpism will age. Are people, Republican constituents particularly, going to have the same patience or tolerance for this stuff in, say, a year? Maybe. Maybe not.

natesilver: If Democrats ever take over one or both branches of Congress, the investigations could obviously cripple Trump’s agenda.

perry: I think it’s huge. Remember a few weeks ago Trump gave that joint session speech. Van Jones praised him. Then, the Sessions-Russia story eliminated that news cycle.

micah: Hmmm …

perry: That led to Trump making up the wiretapping story.

micah: But, for example, has that affected Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings or the health care bill?

natesilver: You can certainly make an argument that Trump is mishandling health care.

clare.malone: I don’t think it’s had an effect on Gorsuch, though.

micah: Side note: I like poke.

clare.malone: In part because that seems a world apart from Trump in some way.

micah: But Trump isn’t mishandling health care because of Russia, is he?

perry: Gorsuch and health care less so, because Republicans on the Hill are strongly behind those. But on, say, the travel ban executive order, I think having a president with low approval ratings makes those things harder to execute.

And the Russia story is a problem in part because the way Trump distracts from it, by attacking Obama or the British or the media, creates new problems.

natesilver: I don’t know. Health care requires real focus, political capital, etc. It’s like Trump’s trying to run a marathon with a hangover.

clare.malone: Possible, but not fun.

perry: So we all agree Russia is a big problem?

natesilver: I think it’s a medium problem with the potential to become a big problem.

micah: Yeah, that’s more where I am.

clare.malone: I’m not sure it will age well, and I always wonder in the back of my mind where or whether there is a breaking point for congressional Republicans.

micah: At which point they dump Trump, Clare? Or turn on Trump/stop defending him or protecting him.

clare.malone: No one’s dumping him, but I think yeah, the latter would be interesting to see.

perry: Right. I think a hearing in which Republicans are not defending Trump at every turn makes Monday much different.

micah: Yeah, I think it would take a lot of 🔥🔥🔥.

Very specific evidence of collusion, let’s say. I have a harder time seeing the smoke accumulating to a point where the GOP stops defending the administration — even if there’s a ton of smoke over many months.

clare.malone: Smoke inhalation can kill, man.

perry: But — and maybe this is because I live in D.C. and used to work at the [Washington] Post — I think having the Times/Post investigative teams digging in daily on a story is going to complicate his work. Those papers, I would argue, still define “the conversation” in a big way.

natesilver: One other thing … scandal isn’t just a cause of unpopularity. Scandals can also be an effect of unpopularity. If Trump is sitting there with a 32 percent approval rating instead of 42 percent, the GOP might suddenly decide Russia is a lot more worthy of investigation.

perry: If the health care bill dies, tax reform does not happen, does that make Republicans on the Hill feel like Trump can’t get their stuff done?

micah: Totally buy into all that. But there’s a chance that if the Russia-Trump stories coming out in five months are still anonymously sourced and indirect and caveated, that the public will tire of the story. I think Clare said this earlier.

perry: Interesting.

natesilver: Yeah, which is also a point that Matt Taibbi makes pretty well.

perry: I can’t tell if Monday was the biggest day of a Russia story that will define this presidency or one of the final stages of a story that will gradually die. That is, I genuinely do not have a strong conjecture, one way or the other, if real collusion/collaboration between the Russians and Trump campaign happened.

The facts matter all the time. But they really matter here.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.