t wasn’t the reemergence of Lanny Davis this summer that came as a surprise. “Davis you will always have with you,” the New Testament tells us, and here in Washington his presence is taken as a fact of life, as compulsory as the malarial summers or the raising of the debt ceiling. No, what is surprising about Lanny’s resuscitation is how rocky it was—how lacking in professional élan. People don’t hire Davis to make trouble but to stop trouble in its tracks.
For those who aren’t familiar with him—who are you people anyway?—Lanny Davis is a veteran Washington lobbyist and spokesman-for-hire. In July, he signed on with Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, when Cohen revealed that he was going to sing like Beverly Sills in front of Robert Mueller, the special counsel. “On July 2,” Davis told Judy Woodruff on PBS, “Mr. Cohen declared his independence, first by going on ABC and then by hiring me.”
Davis first popped out of the Washington public-relations dogpile in the 1990s when he left his million-dollar-a-year partnership at a white-shoe firm to serve as a second-tier spokesman for President Clinton. As one scandal after another engulfed the president—and, by osmosis, his wife, staff, reelection committee, and political party—Davis was suddenly everywhere. You couldn’t throw a brick through a TV screen without shattering a picture of Lanny splitting hairs and blowing smoke.
Opinions differed on how good Davis was at his job. For what it’s worth, I was in awe of him. But no one failed to be impressed by his superhuman ability to take abuse, sometimes from an impatient reporter but mostly from his president and a White House that unloaded one garbage truck after another on top of him, dumping heaps of unsavory facts or incriminating documents he was then expected to make suitable for public release. No embarrassment was too great for him to endure, so long as it was in service of the man from a place called Hope.
Davis’s first big assignment was to tend reporters while they tried, with varying degrees of ardor, to gauge the depth and breadth of illicit fundraising for the president’s 1996 reelection campaign. The outrageous behavior of Clinton’s fundraising operation was jaw-dropping, or should have been—and if it is now largely forgotten, we have Lanny Davis’s artistry to thank.
The motive force was the unquenchable thirst of Clinton and his party for campaign cash. This led them to hold a kind of silent auction of presidential perks and power in anticipation of the 1996 election. You could bid for big-tickets items like a sleepover in the Lincoln bedroom or a modest coffee klatch with the president, and it didn’t much matter who “you” were. Even the Communist Chinese sluiced money into the Clinton reelection campaign, using a labyrinth of back channels run by shady intermediaries. And the Clintonites, including the president himself, grabbed the money with both hands and asked for more. It was unheard of—a foreign power trying to undermine the sacred process of American Democracy? It can happen here!
Senate Republicans called a series of public hearings, and Lanny was there, day after day, pacing outside the hearing rooms, waiting to spin reporters during breaks and recesses. He was an early and literal-minded practitioner of whataboutism. After a morning session that revealed the scummy maneuverings of yet another Clinton surrogate, we reporters would emerge from the hearing room ready for a shower—and instead would find Lanny, fully clothed, waving a sheaf of photocopies that might show illicit funding of congressional campaigns. “What about Congress? What about Congress?” he would shout, standing on tiptoes amid the passing crowd like a 19th-century newspaper boy. “When will the committee investigate Congress? When?” Indignities came naturally to him. He’d always be back the next day, ready for more.
Behind the scenes, Davis was a maestro of the “document dump”—scattering potentially damaging documents among a massive pile of routine bureaucratic detritus and then releasing the lot late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning, when fagged-out reporters lacked the energy to make a ruckus. In this way, he gave new life to the phrase “old news.” Davis could leak a troublesome piece of evidence to a favored reporter, who broke the story in such a way that other reporters would be disinclined to follow it up with their own investigation. When at last some other newshound tumbled to the importance of the information, Davis could dismiss it as old news—a random morsel already digested by the news-gathering beast and flushed out as uninteresting or insignificant.
Over time Davis grew to become a master of the capital’s complicated etiquette of sourcing. I remember finding him one afternoon in the usual scrum of reporters outside the hearing room. “Who are you?” one of the reporters asked.
Davis thought for a moment. “For this,” he said, “I’m a White House official, okay?” High-ranking? he was asked—for sometimes Davis would be called high-ranking; other times a source close to the White House.
“Not necessary,” Davis said, and then revealed, on background, a piece of information that everybody knew. He went on to announce that this president and this White House were taking a “wait-and-see” posture toward the hearings but—quite frankly—they were disappointed in Republican partisanship.
The scrum disbanded but soon a reporter returned. “Lanny,” he said, “that thing about the wait-and-see attitude—is that on the record?” A moment’s hesitation. “That’s on the record,” Davis acknowledged. The reporter turned and the White House official followed him. “But not that first thing!”
A veteran of such elaborate protocols would not expect to make the kind of mistake that Davis has made this summer. Not long after Cohen hired Davis in July, CNN had a scoop. It quoted anonymous sources saying Cohen was prepared to tell Mueller that Donald Trump had known beforehand about a 2016 meeting between his son Donald Jr. and Russian operatives. For enthusiasts of the Russian-collusion scandal, this was big news. Other outlets rushed to confirm it, and did.
Davis denied that he was the anonymous source behind the story. After several weeks, though, he admitted he was. Moreover, we learned that when other news outlets sought to verify the Cohen story, they did so by asking Davis, who confirmed it—off the record, of course. But that’s not all! To round things off, Davis finally admitted that the original story he had leaked to CNN wasn’t even true: Cohen in fact knew nothing about Trump’s knowledge of the Russia meeting.
It isn’t often in official Washington that lies reveal themselves in such purity: a lie doubling back on itself, a lie in service of another lie. Washington folklore tells us that an outright lie will ruin the reputation of a man in Davis’s line of work. Lies are essential to the craft, of course, but only lies of a certain kind; they must work by misdirection, omission, strategic silence, or obscurantism.
Still, reporters in the capital are unlikely to dwell on Davis’s stumble, or even to hold it against him for long, if only for reasons of professional self-interest. The tale lays bare the mutual parasitism of the source-reporter relationship and the circularity of so many anonymous scoops. Reporters need Davis, it turns out, as much as he needs them, and neither can afford to abandon the other. He’ll survive his rocky reemergence. Already this damning, revelatory episode is taking on the smell of old news.