It’s been over a week since special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report about the Trump team’s Russia ties to Attorney General William Barr and since Barr summarized that report with a four-page legal brief that already has been the subject of millions of words of analysis and commentary. Almost all of those words, and the theories and presumptions they carry, have been uttered by journalists and lawyers and advocates and politicians who cannot possibly know what they need to know to comment so eagerly and earnestly. There’s no agreement even on whether Barr’s “summary” is a summary.
The coverage so far has reminded me of covering high-profile Supreme Court cases. There’s a terrifying moment when the big decision is handed down and the opinion is 100 pages long with two concurrences and three dissents, and the producer yells in your ear: “OK, we’re coming to you live…” Except in the case of Mueller’s work, there is no “opinion” yet to sift through to help separate the signal from the noise. There is only Barr’s wholly expected choice not to prosecute anyone Mueller didn’t prosecute. That’s news. But it’s also impossible to determine whether it was reasonable, or even lawful, without the underlying Mueller evidence.
You have about 100 words of Mueller substance to analyze on the one hand, and you have years of pent-up media focus on the Trump team’s Russia ties on the other. So naturally you got the Tower of Babble we’ve had over the past ten days. The story of congressional committees fighting with the attorney general and the White House over obscure Justice Department procedures involving a special counsel’s report is the sort of inside baseball that causes most Americans’ eyes to glaze over. It is not a substitute for the real story — the extent to which the Trump team benefited from Russian help and then hid it.
The truth is that the people who know about the Mueller report aren’t talking and the people who are talking don’t know about the Mueller report. That will remain the case until we can see and digest the real thing. Trump and his propagandist allies in the media — both the willing and unwitting — have flown into this vacuum, to help fill all that cable air time devoted to “special reports,” to provide the false equivalence that all media outlets seem unable to avoid, and to amplify and expand Barr’s spin on Mueller’s work. The strategy is as audacious as it is cynical, but it has worked for Trump for decades.
It’s also a set-up by the Justice Department. Barr and the White House knew that Mueller had to submit his work to the attorney general and that weeks would pass before the report was made public or the special counsel was called to testify on Capitol Hill. Barr knew, in other words, that how he summarized Mueller’s work would be all journalists would have to work with to describe the long-awaited report on Trump collusion, conspiracy, and corruption. It would be, you could say, the first draft of the history of the Mueller report.
So Barr made sure he made that “first draft” as favorable to his boss as he could manage, putting the interests of one of his clients, the president, above the interests of millions of his other clients, the American people. He did this not only because he believes in sweeping presidential power without concomitant transparency or accountability but also because he wants to try to create a presumption of innocence in favor of Trump before the rest of us learn what Mueller actually found. Barr has behaved not as the nation’s chief law enforcement official, but as yet another Trump toady at Justice.
This helps explain why we’ve had cascading stages of media coverage. First, there was breathless coverage of the report coming in. Then there was the wait for Barr to give us the CliffNotes. Then the CliffNotes came, and everyone on every side of the political divide tried to make the best of them. Then came the deeper analysis of Barr’s memo, such as it is. Then came the White House victory lap and its predictable, shameless attack on the journalists who have helped expose the Russia scandal. And then came all the hand wringing and cat fighting among journalists.
Otherwise sensible reporters who have covered two years’ worth of gaslighting by Trump and his tribunes have been remarkably slow to understand that they are now the ones being gaslighted. If Mueller says his work does not exonerate Trump, it surely does not incriminate the journalists who have helped expose this scandal, those who have dug deep into the hardest story of our time. The reporting has not always been perfect or accurate. Ask Watergate hero Carl Bernstein himself: reporting on a story of such magnitude can never be perfect in an era of such blatant and persistent disregard for the truth by public officials. (Trump’s growing count of lies, alone, is about to surpass 10,000).
To allow the serial liars of the White House to say otherwise — sometimes on the very networks they are criticizing — is a form of surrender by news organizations who should be doubling-down on investigative reporting now that the obstruction of justice has morphed into a new phase. Hey, cable executives and editors: Stop putting these people on your air and on your front pages. They aren’t acting in good faith. You aren’t absolving yourselves for helping elect Trump. Disseminating the message that Trump is exonerated and that the media are to blame is a form of the same obstruction of justice that Mueller investigated. The grift isn’t over. It’s still underway. And it needs to be covered aggressively and courageously.
But here’s the punchline — and maybe the best news to come from this dark period: polls suggest that the people who ultimately matter most in this story, voters, haven’t changed their minds about Trump or Mueller over the past two weeks. Most Americans don’t think Trump has been vindicated, and a significant majority want the Mueller report made public and the special counsel and Barr to testify under oath on Capitol Hill. The American people understand, it seems, that you can’t judge a 400-page prosecutors’ report by a four-page leaflet written by a partisan attorney general.
If I ran a cable network, I would have done things very differently in the past 10 days. I would have covered little of Mueller-Barr until we know exactly what the special counsel has concluded. I would have focused instead on the many other major scandals unfolding in the most corrupt administration in American history. A decent network could have focused on one such scandal each day since Barr’s summary while still providing its viewers fresh material. Fresher, anyway, than watching yet another group of former federal prosecutors sit around a desk discussing something none of them have read.
A dream, I know. We have, alas, the media coverage we have. We have the bad-faith actors in and around the White House that we do. We have one network devoted almost entirely to Trump propaganda. We have a wave of anti-media bias and online distortion. So buck up, all you journalists out there covering this story. Facts still matter. So does evidence. So do guilty pleas and sentencing reports. Trump’s Russia election scandal is real, no matter what the obstructionists in and out of government want us to believe, and it’s about time for the subpoenas to start flying from House Democrats to the Justice Department.
(Image: Win McNamee/Getty)
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.