Where implications fail: Trump, Mueller and the media
Photo by AP Imahes

Where implications fail: Trump, Mueller and the media

July 21, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump’s legal team investigating members of Mueller team for conflicts of interest, sources say

The New York Times and Washington Post reported on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s legal team is investigating whether members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team have conflicts of interest. The newspapers cited “three people with knowledge” of the matter in their reports.

On May 17, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI Director, as special counsel charged with examining alleged Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and alleged coordination between Russian officials and Trump’s presidential campaign.

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow told The Associated Press that Trump “is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation.” White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a news briefing, “The president’s making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation.”

The briefings follow Trump’s interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, in which he alleged that members of Mueller’s team have conflicts of interest. He referenced information he would make available “at some point,” and did not provide specific information supporting the allegation. Additionally, Trump said it would be a “violation” for Mueller to examine Trump family finances as part of the Russia investigation.

Also during the interview, Trump mentioned he would not have hired U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the investigation. Sessions, a campaign adviser for Trump, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee June 13, saying he did not take part in “any collusion” with Russian officials during Trump’s campaign.

The Attorney General may remove a special counsel from office if he or she determines there is a conflict of interest.

Distortion Highlights

  • News outlets imply Trump has something to hide and that he may be abusing his power.
  • They make these arguments with opinions rather than clear, factual reasoning.
  • That might be fine for an op-ed, but the articles we analyzed were in the news section, which is assumed to be objective and unbiased.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Witch hunt

    By building files on Mr. Mueller’s team, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of the Clinton White House, which openly challenged Mr. Starr and criticized what Mr. Clinton’s aides saw as a political witch hunt. (The New York Times)

    While Trump has assailed the probes as a partisan “witch hunt,” the investigations have increasingly ensnared his family and close advisers … (AP)

    The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” (Washington Post)

  • Showdown

    The effort to investigate the investigators is another sign of a looming showdown between Mr. Trump and Mr. Mueller, who has assembled a team of high-powered prosecutors and agents to examine whether any of Mr. Trump’s advisers aided Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.  (The New York Times)

    The two papers reported that Trump’s legal team is examining potential conflicts of interest in Mueller’s outfit, in what appears to be evolving into an unavoidable showdown between the White House and the special counsel. (CNN)

  • Aggressive

    Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. (The New York Times)

  • No-limits

    Donald Trump is the no-limits President. (CNN)

  • Torpor

    Of course, Trump promised disruption and a new way of doing things designed to shake Washington out of the polarized torpor it has suffered for years and many supporters will see his conduct as exactly what they voted for. (CNN)

  • Anger

    But Sessions’ situation is more unusual, law enforcement officials said, because he has angered the president for apparently being too independent while also angering many at the FBI for his role in the president’s firing of Comey. (Washington Post)

  • Frustrated / frustration

    Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with the investigations, which threaten to shadow his administration for months or even years. (AP)

    His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. (Washington Post)

  • Irked

    New York-based attorney Marc Kasowitz, whose unconventional style has irked some White House aides, is seen as a diminishing presence in the operation, according to the two people with knowledge of the matter. (AP)

In any news story, there are the facts. In this case, they’re listed in the Raw Data above. Then there’s what the media implies or concludes about the facts—here, that Trump’s comments indicate he has something to hide, and that he may be abusing his power as president.

These arguments are plausible and it may be reasonable to make them. The problem is, media outlets do so with opinions rather than clear, factual reasoning. That might be fine for an op-ed, but the articles we analyzed were in the news section, which is assumed to be objective and unbiased. Here are two examples:

The spin in CNN:

CNN’s headline is “Trump tests the limits of presidential power.” Its first sentence is, “Donald Trump is the no-limits President.” The implication is that Trump may be abusing power, or is headed in that direction, and subjective language such as “no-limits” strengthens that notion. The issue is the outlet doesn’t define what “limits” it’s referring to, or explain exactly how Trump is surpassing them.

The piece continues (with spin noted in red):

“The quickly building drama is prompting discussion about the potential reach of presidential power and Trump’s willingness to test the boundaries of his authority, in possibly unprecedented ways … It is often difficult to be sure whether the President is pursuing a deliberate strategy to stretch his powers or is simply unfamiliar with their limits.”

Trump’s comments about the Mueller investigation, and the news that his lawyers are investigating Mueller’s team, could suggest the White House is interfering with an independent investigation. His comments about Sessions could indicate that he is willing to interfere with the impartial administration of justice.

But unless CNN gives us data as evidence, then its points remain what they are—opinions. For example, what are the laws he might be breaking? What articles of the Constitution is he possibly violating? This information may well exist, but you won’t find it in CNN’s article.

The logic of The New York Times:

Consider this sentence:

“The examination of Mr. Mueller’s investigators reflects deep concerns among the president’s aides that Mr. Mueller will mount a wide-ranging investigation in the mold of the inquiry conducted by the independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr during the 1990s.”

This implies Mueller’s investigation could end up as Starr’s did. What’s the basis of the implication? According to the Times, “By building files on Mr. Mueller’s team, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of the Clinton White House, which openly challenged Mr. Starr and criticized what Mr. Clinton’s aides saw as a political witch hunt.”

It’s true that Trump has criticized Mueller and called his investigation a “witch hunt.” But does that mean the investigation will evolve in the same way Starr’s did, and expand outside its original purview? It might, but this doesn’t necessarily follow. The implication is problematic, especially if you consider that the House eventually voted to impeach Clinton, even though the Senate didn’t vote to remove him from office. What might you assume about what will happen to Trump? Right, that Congress could vote on his impeachment too, or at least that his actions are worthy of impeachment. But the Times hasn’t provided data to support that.

The media can act as a system of checks and balances on the government, reporting factually on what public officials set out to do, what they deliver and, in some circumstances, when they deviate from their responsibilities. But journalists diminish that noble function when they add spin, opinion and unsubstantiated implications. Sometimes, the consequences of doing so — like marring someone’s character or misinforming the public — can’t ever be fully retracted.

In saying this, we are not defending Trump, or anyone else, but when talking about potential legal wrongdoing by the occupant of the highest office in the country, it is more important than ever to follow due process. A pillar of the U.S. legal system is the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty, and we may violate this by implying in the media that someone is guilty before an investigation has concluded.

Again, it’s possible that some of these implications turn out to be true, but if that happens, the media won’t have to interpret: the evidence will speak for itself.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 43% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 70% Spun

  • 83% Spun


The New York Times

“Some of the investigators have vast experience prosecuting financial malfeasance, and the prospect that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry could evolve into an expansive examination of Mr. Trump’s financial history has stoked fears among the president’s aides.”

Some of Mueller’s investigators have experience prosecuting financial crimes. Mueller’s investigation could involve examination of Trump’s financial history, among other things.


“The President’s expansive view of the deference he is owed is not confined to his dealings with the Justice Department and the FBI. It is ingrained in his approach to politics and the Republican Party on Capitol Hill as well.”

Trump deals with the Justice Department and the FBI.

Associated Press

“The focus on potential conflicts with Mueller’s team may well be an effort to distract from snowballing federal and congressional investigations into possible election year coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia.”

Trump’s team is investigating potential conflicts of interest within Mueller’s team. Trump’s campaign is being investigated for possible coordination with Russia.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts included in all sources

Mr. Trump’s situation is unique, though, because of his team’s public threats that they could fire Mr. Mueller at any time. (The New York Times)

According to the Justice Department, only the attorney general can dismiss the special counsel. And since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters relating to the Russia investigation, that duty would fall to Rod Rosenstein. While the Trump team may bring a case to Rosenstein against Mueller or his investigators, it would ultimately be Rosenstein’s decision. So, they cannot fire Mueller “at any time.”

The Justice Department has explicit rules about what constitutes a conflict of interest. Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have “a personal or political relationship” with the subject of the case. Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a “political relationship.” (The New York Times)

If Trump’s legal team uncovers campaign donations made by some of Mueller’s investigators, the above information may help people better understand how the Justice Department views such actions. While campaign donations may show support for a particular candidate, they don’t constitute a “conflict of interest.” The other articles don’t include this information, which may lead to inaccurate assumptions that such connections are a violation.

The Justice Department also notes that situations that would normally constitute “conflicts of interest” may be waived if the investigator receives written permission to engage in an activity from the Attorney General, after he or she evaluates the case and determines it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the investigation. The Justice Department also defines a “political relationship” as “a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether successful or not) for election, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser or a principal official thereof.” So an investigator may need to have been a “principal adviser or a principal official” in a campaign to establish a “political relationship.”


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

States that Trump’s aides are investigating because they want leverage.

The Times states this as a definite reason, which could be true, or not. It excludes other possible reasons for the investigation.

Implies Trump’s investigation of Mueller’s team goes beyond presidential limits.

Does it? Are presidents not allowed to investigate potential conflict of interest under these circumstances? Is it illegal for Trump to investigate Mueller’s team? Or is it Trump’s potential intent regarding the investigation that could make it an abuse? CNN does not clarify this.

States Trump’s team intends to thwart the investigation.

Similar to the example above, the Post states the Trump team’s intent. Is that what Trump or his aides said they intend to do? Not according to the Post. Saying the team wants to “control” and “block” the investigation gives a reader an opinionated perspective as a fact. Although the opinion may be true, stating it as a possibility rather than an absolute is more responsible reporting.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • President Trump’s team of lawyers is looking for things that might weaken the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and Russia. Trump and his team are trying to cover-up misdeeds by “undermining” the investigation.
  • Trump is a controversial president who often breaks with tradition. He’s likely abusing or planning to abuse his presidential authority — either because he doesn’t know any better, or because he’s intentionally trying to get away with something. (CNN)
  • Trump is probably going to try to pardon himself and his associates, in relation to the Russia investigations, since he was asking about it. (The Washington Post)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Looking into potential conflicts of interest doesn’t necessarily mean Trump’s team is trying to cover something up. From one perspective, it may be good to hold investigators to the scope of their investigation and due process. From another perspective, he may be trying to protect his and his family’s privacy. Ultimately, we don’t know Trump’s motivations.
  • We aren’t provided enough information to determine whether Trump has breached his constitutional authority or not. Being unorthodox in itself may not be a problem.
  • Asking questions about your authority to do something doesn’t mean you’re going to test it. He may pardon people, but he may have just been gathering information about that particular power. Presenting only one possibility may weight it inappropriately.