The Media Today

A FOIA victory for BuzzFeed and CNN puts Mueller back in the story

November 4, 2019

In March, after William Barr, the attorney general, released his misleading summary of the Mueller report to Congress, Jason Leopold, a reporter with BuzzFeed, starting making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, asking the government for the documents—subpoenas, warrants, correspondence, memos, transcripts, and more—underpinning the report. BuzzFeed ended up pressing five lawsuits for access to the information; the government, dragging its feet, claimed the requests could span 18 billion (with a “b”) pages of records and take hundreds of years to produce, and asked BuzzFeed to narrow its demands. BuzzFeed declined. In the summer, CNN also sued for access to memos—known as 302s—derived from key interviews that Mueller’s team conducted. That suit was later consolidated with BuzzFeed’s.

Finally, early last month, transparency won. A federal judge told the Justice Department to hand both news organizations 500 pages of 302s per month, a task that could keep it busy for the next eight years. (The judge also ordered Justice to determine what steps the Trump administration is taking to process a recent uptick in FOIA requests, after the department cited backlog as a reason for delaying compliance; Trump, the judge said, is a “disruptor,” so should have expected heightened public scrutiny.) Over the weekend, the first tranche of documents dropped. Leopold, sharing their fruits, tweeted, “Prying loose these records was a painstaking effort. Truly.” Online, FOIA enthusiasts lauded him as a master of the art.

ICYMI: Dropshipping journalism

After all that effort, what do the documents reveal? They’re not earth-shattering, and they contain redactions; nonetheless, we learned some interesting details. As early as 2016, Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign manager (since jailed), pushed the unsubstantiated conspiracy—now at the center of the impeachment story—that Ukrainians, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee. Manafort was secretly advising the Trump campaign through to the 2016 election, even though he had been fired months earlier. Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime right-hand man, said the campaign was “very happy” about the release of Democrats’ emails, and that Trump and his aides repeatedly discussed how they might get access to them. According to Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump vacationed with a Russian oligarch three months before the election. When Trump told Bannon, at their first meeting in 2010, that he was weighing a bid for president in 2012, Bannon replied “for what country?”

The efforts of BuzzFeed and CNN are significant regardless of the memos’ contents. They will expand the public record; as BuzzFeed put it in its article laying out the first findings, the documents “are a crucial national legacy,” and “offer a chance for everyone to view a key function of American democracy.” (Full disclosure: I interned at BuzzFeed in 2017.) The logistical reasons the government gave for stonewalling were pernicious, and will be familiar to any reporter who has ever FOIA’ed for anything, let alone sensitive papers at the heart of a giant national scandal. It’s always good to see delaying tactics knocked back in court.

But this FOIA fight matters for more than posterity. The news cycle has buried Mueller to focus on Ukrainegate—and yet, as the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin explained last month, “the Russia and Ukraine scandals are, in fact, one story.” Manafort’s early peddling of the Ukraine–DNC conspiracy is proof of this; so, too, is the fact that the House Judiciary Committee is urgently seeking access to Mueller’s grand jury secrets as part of its impeachment probe. More broadly, Mueller and Ukraine are connected by threads of the same narrative tissue. As Toobin noted, both episodes involve leveraging foreign help for electoral gain; both involve Vladimir Putin (Trump’s withholding of military aid from Ukraine—which has since been disbursed—benefited Russia); and both form part of an accountability cycle whereby, Toobin says of Trump, “each unpunished act serv[es] as a license for more.” Trump’s notorious call with Ukraine’s president came one day after Mueller “bombed” in public testimony before Congress, effectively ending any chance of impeachment based on his report (or so the commentariat concluded).

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Mueller’s findings were damning, but their severity was diluted by Barr’s spin, journalists’ obsession with optics, and their own complexity. BuzzFeed and CNN’s rolling FOIA victory ensures we haven’t heard the last of those findings, and enhances the odds that the press will connect the dots between the Mueller and Ukraine stories. When it comes to Ukraine, Trump already publicly admitted to the simple, central charge—that he asked for help investigating a rival—and we should put that fact front and center. Equally, when it comes to the background, we shouldn’t forget what Mueller found, but which ceased to obsess us.

Below, more on Mueller, Ukraine, and FOIA:

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times took a deep dive into Trump’s use of Twitter as president, which has (somehow) accelerated of late: since taking office, he has sent more than 11,000 tweets, 1,308 of which have involved attacks on news organizations. (Kellyanne Conway told the Times, “He needs to tweet like we need to eat.”) In a detailed analysis, the paper found that fewer than one-fifth of Trump’s followers are Americans of voting age, and that “conspiracy-mongers, racists, and spies” routinely worm their way into his feed.
  • Also in the Times, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt write that one week on, no evidence has surfaced—publicly or, it would seem, internally—for Trump’s account that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming” when he died. “What may be most telling about the episode is how little attention the disparity of details received,” they write. “In the past, presidential words were scrutinized with forensic exactitude and any variance from the established record could do lasting political damage. In the era of Trumpian truth, misstatements and lies are washed away by the next story.”
  • On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter spoke with Vincent Novak and Bruce David Martin, journalists who reported from Ground Zero after 9/11 and now have cancer. Novak and Martin are among tens of journalists who have moved to register with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. “As a journalist, the main motive is just to get the story,” Martin said, “never thinking years later you’re gonna end up dying from it.”
  • For CJR, Aaron Calvin reflects on his recent firing from the Des Moines Register, whose parent company, Gannett, let him go after people online surfaced Calvin’s old tweets in a bid to smear a story he wrote as hypocritical. Gannett, “vindicated bad-faith attacks and allowed disingenuous arguments to influence their decisions,” Calvin writes. “In the end, I believe I was scapegoated by a corporation trying to preserve its bottom line.”
  • The Post appended an editor’s note to the top of its story about Chesa Boudin—a candidate for San Francisco district attorney whose father is in prison—noting that its writer, Deanna Paul, “is a former New York City prosecutor and has a parent who was formerly incarcerated.” The disclosure drew criticism, including from ProPublica’s Eric Umansky: “The reporter is no more biased than one who *hasn’t* had family in prison.”
  • Bannon is interested in buying the Telegraph, a British broadsheet with close ties to Boris Johnson; Bannon told the Sunday Times that the traditionally establishment Telegraph could become an international brand promoting populist nationalism. Also in the Sunday Times, Nigel Farage, Britain’s top populist nationalist, admitted he’s eyeing a Brexit of his own: he wants to move to America, probably to be a media personality.
  • Taking (another) leaf from Trump’s playbook, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, canceled government subscriptions to Folha, a major newspaper. Trump recently axed the Post and the Times from the White House—although, according to Jonathan Swan and Alexi McCammond, of Axios, he still has access to the papers on his iPhone.
  • And after Deadspin’s entire staff quit in protest of the site’s owners, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted solidarity, telling “incompetent corporate hacks” to get out of the newsroom. Jillian Jorgensen, of NY1, reminded us that the same de Blasio privately relished the idea of cutbacks at the Daily News, which has covered him aggressively.

ICYMI: CNN still doesn’t know how to cover ‘the squad’

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.