Barr Exam: A long weekend in the Justice Department press room

March 25, 2019
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

When Sadie Gurman, a Justice Department correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, woke up on Friday, she had a nervous energy. Like many journalists, her week had been dominated by rumors that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, to be shared with William Barr, the attorney general, was imminent. Gurman had cancelled early-morning workouts, a window-blinds fitting at home, lunches, and coffee dates. She took the number 63 bus to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, disembarked, and walked past packs of photographers. She entered the press room at 8:30am, and it was buzzing. “I thought, ‘This has to be the day, this cannot continue to go on,’” Gurman says.

The twenty-odd reporters who form the Justice Department press corps had thought as much before. In recent months, whispers that Mueller was wrapping up his investigation had become almost routine, even as the report itself remained elusive. But then, on Tuesday, hints trickled in from sources to some reporters that they should be prepared. Minor signs took on outsized meaning: by Wednesday morning, black SUVs in the Justice Department courtyard were enough to prompt a near-panic. On Thursday, a lunchtime ceremony honoring Jeff Sessions—which had nothing to do with Mueller’s investigation—sent conjecture flying. “We were looking in people’s eyes, watching their facial reactions, everything,” Gurman says. “If somebody even raised an eyebrow in an unusual way, we would think, ‘They know something!’”

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The rumors delivered. On Friday afternoon, Mueller presented his report to Barr, who spent the weekend reviewing it. On Sunday afternoon, Barr sent a letter to Capitol Hill with his interpretation of the findings. Through it all, the press room in the Department of Justice—which sits four floors below the office of the Attorney General—whirred with anticipation.

The press room has six workstations: five are reserved for the Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Journal, and The Washington Post;  the last is a communal station that is sometimes filled by reporters from The New York Times or NPR. Closets house teams from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and Fox News. Across the hall, an auxiliary room offers space for reporters representing other outlets—but there are only three workstations. On a normal week, when most reporters would elect to work from their publications’ offices, there’s plenty of space to go around. Last week, there weren’t enough chairs for everyone on the Mueller beat to squeeze in. Some reporters made an impromptu standing desk out of a tall filing cabinet. “It’s an open space, there’s no privacy at all,” Zoe Tillman, of BuzzFeed News, says. Tillman dragged a chair from elsewhere in the building and sat deskless.

The tight quarters heightened nerves. But amid the most competitive story, on an already highly-competitive beat, the reporters found unlikely camaraderie. “It was how I imagine the New York City police department press room in the 1920s,” Del Wilber, of the Los Angeles Times, tells CJR. “A bunch of reporters, all together, against their editors and the world.” Each journalist would have been happy to scoop the others, of course. But Mueller’s team had proven remarkably leak-proof. Reporters created a group text message chain to update each other with developments. “There was a feeling that, after all the time and waiting, we can’t let anybody on this beat with us fall down on the job,” Eric Tucker, of the Associated Press, says.

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On Friday, around noon, someone suggested that pizzas might help ease stress of waiting; everyone cheered in agreement. (Another reporter suggested that if they all went out to eat at a nearby bar and grill that it would be impossible for anyone to get scooped; this proved a tougher sell.)

The DOJ press room on Friday afternoon.

In the 4 o’clock hour, phones began to light up. Reporting colleagues on Capitol Hill were getting word that a letter from Barr had arrived to Congress and, in a pack, the Justice Department press corps moved to the hallway to wait some more. When a DOJ spokesperson arrived, with copies of Barr’s letter in hand, it at last set off a mad scramble to update and file stories. They blasted off tweets. They darted back and forth across the hall, pressing spokespeople for information in the main press room and jamming updates into their computers. Cell service in the DOJ press rooms is lousy, so reporters sprinted around trying to catch a few bars of reception. To send a photo of Barr’s letter to his editors, Wilber, in desperation, ran outside.

By evening, their stories were out. “It was amazing, in this moment, we all went from a lot of stress to a little,” Tucker says. “We’ve all got our reports on the wire, in print, or on air, and this thing we’ve been waiting to do all week—for over a year, really—is finished.”

Saturday in the press room passed with comparative quiet. The desks were still mostly full, and occasionally reporters sneaked out to place calls to their sources. Some avoided the office altogether; Wilber coached his son’s baseball team. Around 1pm, word came from Justice Department officials not to expect more news that day. Gurman, who was in the press room, thought, Great, I’ll pick up the dry-cleaning I’ve been ignoring all week. Instead, she found herself aimlessly walking around the center of DC, and then heading back into the press room. “The two reporters who were left were, like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Gurman says. “I don’t know,” she tells CJR. “After all the time I spent there last week, I just didn’t want to be away from the place.”

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.