‘Frontline’ cuts through the noise of Trump-Russia-election scandal

BY ERIC MINK

On Friday, Sept. 28, at the end of one of the busier non-war, non-natural-disaster U.S. news weeks in some time, BuzzFeed.com responded to what it saw as extreme news fatigue among American readers. As a public service, the news site republished a story it first ran a year ago, after the mass shootings in Las Vegas, and then again last winter, with updates, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The headline read, “Here Are Some Mental Health Reminders You Might Need Right Now” (Read it online at http://bit.ly/story-link). The piece, by reporter Anna Borges, was built around suggestions from mental health professionals and others for dealing with “anxiety, sadness, panic or anger” and other kinds of emotional distress generated mainly by news events and the coverage of them.

Such distress is hardly surprising. A fair number of people I know already had been twisted into knots by the news well before last week’s alternately transfixing and infuriating main event: the separate appearances by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee on President Donald Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearing centered on Ford’s allegation that a severely drunk Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in 1982 at a high school party in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C. Kavanaugh denied it.

But my friends and acquaintances have been complaining for months about an endless stream of news stories that they consider too important to skip but too exhausting to keep up with.

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Early in August, for example, a friend who closely follows and cares deeply about current events told me he thought the news was messing him up. He wasn’t sleeping well. When he’d get into bed at night, stories he’d read or watched would keep running over and over in his brain. His appetite was off, and he was more irritable than usual.

“You gotta take a break,” I said. 

He was skeptical about pulling it off but eventually decided to impose a news moratorium on himself through Labor Day. With a few exceptions, he pretty much stuck with it, and felt better for it.

He’s back into the news now, though, with his attention trained on the fast-approaching midterm elections Nov. 6. He’s committed to staying informed about relevant issues, controversies and candidates in key races — shouldn’t we all? —and shares the widely held understanding that midterms amount to a referendum on the sitting president.

Enter PBS’ acclaimed “Frontline” series, which has released a riveting new two-hour documentary titled “Trump’s Showdown.” It zeros in on the Trump-Russia-election scandal.

As befits a real-world counter-espionage thriller, the story explores a tangled web woven to deceive, distinguished by a vast cast of skilled operators and outright buffoons, strategists and bunglers, savvy investigators and tricksters who think they can avoid detection, players who have immense wealth and power, and underlings who have  convinced themselves that they, too, are destined to someday rise to their masters’ level. 

Admittedly, this is a tough story to stay on top of. New tentacles seem to emerge almost daily, distracting journalists and news consumers alike and making it harder to keep the core elements in focus.

The production team for “Trump’s Showdown,” which includes some of the profession’s most accomplished, award-winning news documentarians, seems all too aware of the landmines placed in their path. So they apply professional discipline to their ambitious task of telling the complex story with clarity. They strip away the fake sensationalism that too often obscures the story’s underlying facts. They use expert editing skills to maintain compelling pacing. And they include multiple points of view to underscore fairness.

News footage naturally makes up much of the film’s visuals, but there’s also an abundance of interview material from many former Trump campaign and administration officials, current members of Trump’s legal defense team and other supporters, along with perspective from many of the top investigative journalists for major American news organizations in print, on television and online.

After a heart-jumping, two-minute intro, “Trump’s Showdown” unfolds mostly chronologically.

It opens on Jan. 6, 2017, two weeks before Trump’s inauguration. The leaders of America’s top four intelligence agencies travel to Trump Tower in New York to brief the president-elect on an unclassified report they’re about to release to the public. The report provides startling details supporting the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that units of Russia’s military and intelligence services, on orders from Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, conducted an extensive, multipronged campaign of cyber warfare that disrupted the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016.

The intelligence chiefs might as well have stayed home. Although Trump raised no objections during the briefing’s many hours, he had been insulting the people and work of the intelligence agencies throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and his dismissive slurs continued.

The program highlights the May 9, 2017, firing of FBI Director James Comey, who had been supervising investigations into Russia’s cyberattacks on the U.S. election and possible cooperation between Trump’s campaign and the Russian operatives.

Trump felt that firing Comey relieved great pressure on him from the investigation, and he said as much the very next day, as “Trump’s Showdown” reminds us, in a convivial Oval Office meeting with, of all people, the foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. He also revealed to the Russians classified information that the United States acquired from Israel, a revelation that put certain Israeli intelligence sources and methods at risk.

It’s fair to point out that Kislyak also had confirmed contacts during the campaign with Trump officials including Jeff Sessions (now attorney general), Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law and presidential adviser), Carter Page, J.D. Gordon and Michael Flynn. Flynn, who served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser, has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak.

A week after Comey’s firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigations Comey had headed. Mueller’s mandate also includes exploring possible efforts by the president to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation into his campaign and businesses.

And so it goes. “Trump’s Showdown” is a methodical, professional and highly watchable review of the major inflection points of Mueller’s ongoing investigation. If you want to blow away the smoke and end up with a clear sense of what Mueller’s team is looking into, why the investigation was launched, who’s involved, what has been achieved so far and what the eventual impact could be, the “Frontline” documentary delivers it.

That should update and clarify for you the single most significant ongoing news story in the world and reduce at least some of your news stress and anxiety — for a while anyway.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]