Meet the ‘ridiculously well-sourced’ Michigan journalist at the heart of the Mueller investigation

By: - March 25, 2019 2:46 pm

Marcy Wheeler | Nick Manes

While President Donald Trump falsely claims that he’s “totally exonerated” by a four-page summary saying there’s no evidence that his administration colluded with Russia, Michigan-based journalist Marcy Wheeler is far from done with her work.

Wheeler, an independent journalist who tweets and blogs under the name “Emptywheel,” has been covering the Mueller investigation since its inception in May 2017.

Speaking with the Advance on Sunday evening on the porch of her home in Grand Rapids, Wheeler said that the newly released summary amounts to a “word game” by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that absolves Trump of directly colluding, but leaves open several other possibilities.

“They played a word game to be able to exonerate the president,” Wheeler said. “And maybe [the summary] is right, but given that they’ve only given us four pages of evidence, there’s zero reason anyone should believe it.”

Wheeler shared a similar sentiment in an opinion piece published on Sunday night in the New Republic. Leading Democratic members of Congress also are saying they’re a long way from finished with their investigation.

For starters, the summary of the 22-month investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller released on Sunday afternoon specifically says “that while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” particularly on the question of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.

Several cases that began under the Mueller investigation remain active in other state and federal courts. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Friday night joined 16 other state attorneys general urging the full report to be made public.

A full-time journalist and blogger since the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, Wheeler boasts deep Michigan connections. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and was a longtime Democratic Party activist in Washtenaw County, as well as a consultant for the Big Three automakers.

Those various facets, coupled with her ability to dig deep into court papers and other documents, she says have made her well-positioned for covering the case.

“I’m ridiculously well-sourced for [the Mueller] story because I know the Democratic establishment and the [U.S. Sen.] Bernie [Sanders] establishment,” Wheeler told the Advance in an interview last week prior to the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation.

Generally speaking, supporters of Sanders, who made an insurgent run against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and actually won Michigan’s 2016 primary, have tended to be more skeptical of the Russia investigation.

“I’ve got some crazy good sources in [information security] that, for whatever reason, don’t seem to be reflected in other people’s reporting,” she continued.

Close observers of the Russia probe have appreciated the fact that Wheeler controls her own blog, rather than working as part of a bigger newsroom, since it grants her a certain amount of freedom.

Barbara McQuade

“I also think that by having her own blog space, she can control how deeply she’s able to get into stories in a way that newspapers … don’t have that luxury,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“She’s able to dig a little deeper into her subjects, posting documents and [do a] deeper analysis,” McQuade said. “The blog format I think is more conducive to more in-depth explanations of things, so I think both her media form and her educational background have provided her an opportunity to fill a gap that’s maybe missing from the mainstream media.”

Flying under the radar

In many ways, Wheeler tends to eschew the more buttoned-up, corporate-style makeup of mainstream media reporters who have covered the Mueller investigation.

Often combative on social media and possessing a “legendary potty mouth,” Wheeler has aimed, day in and day out, to share valuable insight and facts into the complex investigation on both her blog and Twitter feed, where she has almost 190,000 followers.

Any conversation with Wheeler on the topic of Trump-Russia connections and the Mueller investigation will reveal an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the case, as she rattles off specific dates that Trump associates like Michael Cohen and Roger Stone communicated with obscure Russian oligarchs and how that corroborates other tidbits of evidence.

Wheeler will be one of the first to admit that the Russia story, which Trump has decried for two years as a “witch hunt” and a “total hoax,” might not get to the issues that Michigan voters care most about, like roads, schools and clean water. That’s part of why she believes she tends to fly under the radar in the state.

“The only reason people know I’m in Michigan is when they see the background when I go [on national TV],” Wheeler said. “They’re like, ‘Wow, this woman on Chris Hayes [on MSNBC] has Grand Rapids in the background.’”

Marcy Wheeler on “Democracy Now”

But she also wants to convey, in somewhat vague terms that she’s not fully at liberty to discuss, how serious she views some of the alleged crimes committed by Russia and those tied to the country.

A major part of the reason Wheeler speaks carefully about the investigation is her own involvement in it.

Sometime in 2017, Wheeler herself became a source for the FBI. She revealed her actions in an Emptywheel post last summer, titled, “Putting a face (mine) to the risks posed by GOP games on Mueller investigation.”

As Wheeler explains it, she had been working with a source who she came to believe was “doing serious harm to innocent people,” as she wrote last year. In doing so, she broke what many see as a core principle of journalism: Always protect your sources.

Marcy Wheeler | Nick Manes

Wheeler’s decision to go to the FBI was profiled last year by the Washington Post’s noted media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who concluded that “it’s hard to judge whether she was right. But it’s not hard to see that her decision was a careful and principled one.”

Wheeler said she has reason to believe that the evidence she provided to the FBI was provided to Mueller’s office. She thinks there’s still a chance the source she turned over could yet be indicted.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined to comment for this story.

Wheeler has not publicly identified the source and has only shared vague details of what kinds of activities she believes he was engaged in. She notes that he has no connection to the Trump campaign or administration.

“I came to believe that he had done some bad shit and some bad shit that was significantly bad enough that I thought it was worth blowing all the taboos on being a journalist,” Wheeler told the Advance, noting that one hacker source, in particular, was angry about her decision to go to the FBI.

That, Wheeler explained, is a key reason she decided to make her cooperation with the government public.

“[I wanted to] reach out to Republicans and say, ‘There’s an aspect of what I’ll call broadly the Russian attack that did unbelievable damage to the United States and you guys are fighting the investigation into it,’” Wheeler said. “Because you’re so tribalistic protecting Trump that you don’t care how bad the damage was. And I’m talking real damage to the United States.”

Wheeler’s presence in Michigan throughout the investigation has resulted in some interesting story proposals, as well. The journalist told the Advance that back in 2016 she was pitched a story — which she turned down — on the presence of a computer server belonging to Grand Rapids-based health care network Spectrum Health that was allegedly in communication with servers tied to Trump businesses and a Russian bank, Alfa Bank.

Marcy Wheeler | Nick Manes

Slate eventually published a story that same year that included a denial from Spectrum Health that it had any connection to Trump businesses or the bank.

Wheeler said she had been pitched the story — she declined to say by whom — and determined it to be Russian “disinformation.” Fact-checking organization Snopes has called it a “dubious conspiracy theory.”

Active in Bush, Obama years

Wheeler received a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and spent much of the early 2000s active in Washtenaw County Democratic politics.

Scooter Libby

One of Wheeler’s early forays into journalism came back in 2007 in the early days of political blogging. At that time she was one of a handful of bloggers allowed to report live from the federal courtroom where I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby was on trial.

The top aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney was found guilty of perjury and other crimes related to leaking undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. Plame’s husband, then-Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was an ardent critic of the Iraq war.

In 2007, Wheeler told the New York Times that her time spent covering the trial helped to cement her perceptions about mainstream media in Washington, D.C.

“It’s shown me the degree to which journalists work together to define the story,” Wheeler said at the time.

Wheeler told the Advance that she sees mainstream media reporting as mainly focusing on the “horserace” and not diving deep into documents that she views as a trove of information.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed | WIkimedia Commons

As one example, she cites her 2009 scoop revealing that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded “at least” 183 times under policies enacted by the administration of former President George W. Bush. In 2009, Bush’s successor, former President Barack Obama decided to release the so-called torture memos.

The release received significant media coverage at the time, but Wheeler said she viewed it as mostly covering the politics rather than digging into the actual memos which showed how many times the U.S. government had tortured Mohammed in an effort to extract information.

“It was unredacted; it’s just that no one was reading the memos,” Wheeler said. “[Reporters] were reading the horserace and they were interviewing people, but they weren’t reading [the documents].”

During the almost two-hour interview with the Advance over dinner last week at a popular Grand Rapids brewery, Wheeler pointed to a handful of Beltway journalists like Zoe Tillman of Buzzfeed News and Josh Gerstein of Politico, who she said are “great at court documents … but ultimately, most traditional editors are going to value what you get from a human source over what you get from a document.”

Rifts emerge on the left

Since undertaking the Russia investigation as a mostly full-time beat two years ago, Wheeler has also undergone something of a split with several other left-leaning journalists and activists who have previously been allies on other topics like surveillance and civil liberties.

That fracture couldn’t be more clear than with Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who co-founded the Intercept, where Wheeler has previously contributed.

Greenwald has been outspoken in his view that the Russia investigation has largely been a waste of time that hasn’t and won’t result in any significant prosecutions.

Speaking Monday morning on “Democracy Now,” Greenwald said that the “idiotic, moronic Tom Clancy-type” investigation “prevented us from focusing on the real, substantive damage that the Trump administration is doing and that Donald Trump’s corruption entails.”

For her part, Wheeler says she’s sympathetic to the “denialism” on display by Greenwald and others.

“The left-wing denialists, I think, raise good points and [those points] are that by focusing exclusively on Russia, Democrats have taken the attention away from bread-and-butter issues that matter here in Michigan,” Wheeler said.

Glenn Greenwald

“I do think blaming Russia was an easy way to dismiss Hillary’s loss rather than not campaigning in Michigan,” she continued. “I’m tolerant of left-wing denialists who make that argument. I’m not tolerant of left-wing denialists who distort the action of Russia and that’s where they are at this point and Glenn is, as well.”

To that end, Wheeler believes that Sunday’s release of the report summary makes for a “cowardly act” by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that only helps fuel the divide, rather than helping to bring the country together in a way that could help against future foreign attacks.

“I wish that we can put Russia behind us, because so long as Russia remains a partisan issue, we are not protecting the country from acknowledged ongoing attacks,” Wheeler said. “So somebody who cared about the United States would have tried to bring as much closure as possible. That’s not what Bill Barr did.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.