The Media Today

Mueller revisionism, and the culpability of the press

September 23, 2020

Under a presidency that, perhaps more than any in recent memory, tends to be rendered in starkly moralistic terms, there is perhaps no better case study of the rise-and-fall character arc than Robert Mueller. Where the right always hated Mueller’s probe into Trump, Russia, and the 2016 campaign, liberals once lionized him—sticking his rumpled face on everything from protest placards to prayer candles—and many members of the mainstream press cast him as a redoubt of institutional rectitude in a world gone mad. All of this, of course, was projection. Amid the frenzied interest in his character and his investigation, Mueller worked in complete silence.

These days, he’s seen differently. His report, which failed to dent Trump politically, is now viewed, in many quarters, as a tragically missed opportunity; with the passage of time, Mueller’s by-the-book stoicism has come to look less heroic, and more like witlessness. Over the summer, Jeffrey Toobin outlined the bones of such a case in a book and New Yorker article. Toobin argues that Mueller failed in two defining respects: he did not issue a subpoena for Trump’s testimony, and he refused to state, one way or another, whether he’d found prosecutable evidence that Trump obstructed justice. (Mueller’s office agreed to abide by a Justice Department rule that a sitting president can’t be indicted; Mueller felt that accusing Trump of crimes would be unfair since Trump wouldn’t have the chance to defend himself in court.) The report’s final judgment, consequently, was “confusing and inconclusive”—and William Barr, the attorney general, seized on the ambiguity to spin the report in Trump’s favor, releasing a misleading summary several weeks before the full report was made publicly available. “Trump shouldn’t be denouncing Mueller—he should be thanking him,” Toobin concludes, in the New Yorker article. “Mueller’s investigation was no witch hunt; his report was, ultimately, a surrender.”

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Toobin’s criticisms and others like them—including the reaction to a forthright recent Senate report that many pundits thought did Mueller’s job better than Mueller did—are the observations of outsiders. This week, an insider weighed in, and basically echoed them. Andrew Weissmann, who was a key staffer in Mueller’s office, started to promote a new book (due out next week) in which he makes the case that he and his colleagues could have stated clearer legal conclusions, and that their failure to do so “left the playing field open” to the president and his spinners, a state of affairs that was ultimately exacerbated by Mueller’s aversion to the spotlight. Mueller’s team, Weissmann writes, failed to probe Trump’s financial records, and shied away from steps—interviewing Ivanka Trump, for example—that they feared might end in a mauling from right-wing media (“look how they’re roughing up the president’s daughter”) and/or Trump furiously shutting the probe down. “We were left feeling like we had let down the American public, who were counting on us to give it our all,” Weissmann writes.

If our contemporaneous Mueller coverage was a first draft of history, the present wave of Mueller revisionism feels like a second or third draft. (Though in some ways, of course, Mueller’s report is still a first-draft concern, given ongoing Russian interference in US politics.) Implicitly, at least, the latest draft says much that is useful about the excesses of the media’s initial Mueller frenzy, which was marked by much excellent, careful reporting, but also by a torrent of breathless speculation. The portrait the liberal media painted of Mueller, it’s long been clear, was hagiography, and Toobin, Weissmann, and others present a convincing case that, in many key respects, he and his team made consequential and avoidable missteps.

The new draft of the Mueller story, however, can still feel overly personalized, even if its emphases are new. Mueller wasn’t a superhero, but nor, arguably, was he principally culpable for letting Trump wriggle off the hook. Barr’s dishonesty wasn’t primarily Mueller’s fault—it was Barr’s. Mueller had to labor, too, under restrictive Justice Department guidelines that make it hard to hold scandal-plagued presidents to account. In his book, Weissmann outlines institutional reforms that would make help with that. But, according to the Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, he doesn’t grapple with why so much of Trump’s behavior is “forgiven or forgotten by a significant portion of the country, or whether the criminal justice system is an effective tool against the perceived moral bankruptcy of a president.” The press has a major stake in such matters. Any comprehensive account of Mueller’s failures must also account for the failures of the media—not just on the right, where propagandists smeared Mueller’s entire effort, but among mainstream outlets, too.

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Mueller’s report could certainly have reached clearer conclusions—but it did contain reams of damning details that were unavoidably complicated, no matter how they were presented. It wasn’t Mueller’s job to hand us a pre-written story; it was our job to sieve conclusions out of the minutiae. When the report was released, many outlets did a good job of that. By then, however, Barr’s spin exonerating Trump had been baked into the public consciousness—thanks, in no small part, to credulous media coverage that was entirely avoidable. (As I wrote at the time, we were given ample warning of Barr’s intentions, but often ignored them.) And the many scandals outlined in the report quickly slipped from the headlines once it became clear that Trump wouldn’t face meaningful political blowback for them. Last summer, we hyped Mueller’s appearance before Congress as a possible turning point in the story, even though he gave us fair warning that he was going to stick to his script; when he did just that, many pundits graded him not on the alarming substance of what he said, but on the dry optics of his delivery.

Whatever draft of the Mueller story we’re now working on, political consequences for Trump remain central to its telling. As other recent episodes—the furor over Bob Woodward’s book, for example—have shown, it’s tempting to imagine that, if those tasked with holding Trump to account had only done x or y better, things may have turned out differently. As it pertains to Mueller, specifically, such thinking strikes me as wishful; it’s worth keeping in mind that Trump was subsequently impeached—over brazen misconduct whose central, simple facts he openly conceded—yet got away with it. When future drafts of the Trump story are written, his prolific evading of accountability will fill volumes, and they will be populated by a wide array of characters, from Republican senators to social-media tycoons. Mueller’s failures—while more than worthy of reflection—may come to look comparatively small. The failures of the press may loom larger.

Below, more on Mueller and Russia:

  • Read the report: In April 2019, just after the Mueller report was published, Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic at the New York Times, reviewed it for CJR, and did not judge it to be insufficiently compelling. Mueller’s team “laid out a minutely detailed narrative that authoritatively exposes the lies and false storylines that we have been living with since the 2016 campaign,” Kakutani wrote. “It’s a riveting account that has the visceral drama of a detective novel, spy thriller, or legal procedural.”
  • Comparing Mueller to the press: Last week, James Fallows wrote, for The Atlantic, that in repeating the mistakes they made during the 2016 campaign in 2020, many in the media are erring in the same ways that Mueller did. Both have been guilty of observing “proprieties that would have made sense when dealing with other figures in other eras,” Fallows wrote. “But now they’re dealing with Donald Trump, and he sees their behavior as a weakness he can exploit relentlessly.” (Last Wednesday, I responded to Fallows’s broader arguments in this newsletter.)
  • Still at it: Yesterday, Josh Rogin, an opinion writer at the Washington Post, reported that a CIA assessment (per two sources who have viewed it) has concluded that Vladimir Putin and his top aides are “probably directing” Russia’s interference in the 2020 election, which, so far, seems mostly to have taken the form of efforts to smear Joe Biden. NBC News subsequently confirmed Rogin’s story.
  • On the subject of smearing Biden: Shortly before we published today’s newsletter, the Republican senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley, who both chair Senate committees, published a report containing a long-anticipated attack on Biden’s son Hunter and his work on the board of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma—a matter that was at the heart of Trump’s impeachment. According to the Post, the new report concludes that Hunter Biden’s conduct was “‘awkward,’ ‘problematic’ and interfered with ‘efficient execution of policy’ for the Obama administration,” but also offers “few specific examples” that it affected Joe Biden’s work as vice president.
  • Alexei Navalny: Also this morning, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader (and  sometime journalist) who was poisoned in the country last month, and has since been receiving treatment in Germany—was discharged from hospital. He has said that he intends to return to Russia.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, Amy Dorris, a former model, told The Guardian that Trump sexually assaulted her in 1997. The paper corroborated aspects of her account, but the story quickly slipped from the news, and, Monica Hesse writes for the Post, many politicians and voters don’t seem to care. “If there are more allegations, those probably won’t matter, either,” Hesse adds. “If a woman came to me with a story, it’s hard to imagine encouraging her to come forward publicly. It would be a lie to promise her that her story would change anything.”
  • The Markup, an investigative site that focuses on tech, launched Blacklight—a new tool, designed by the data journalist Surya Mattu, that allows users to look up a website and find out how it is invading their privacy. The “complex economy of surveillance remains a major financial underpinning for all the services we use online, from shopping, to news,” Julia Angwin, The Markup’s founder, writes. Blacklight is like “a meat thermometer that you can stick into any website and get an instant reading on its level of creepiness.”
  • In June, management at Condé Nast agreed to recognize a union formed by staffers at Wired, but three months on, that still hasn’t happened. Yesterday, the union staged a half-day work stoppage in protest of “inexcusable delays.” It also claimed that bosses are trying to exclude reviews writers and audience-development staffers from bargaining even though, the union wrote on Twitter, they “are editorial employees—period.”
  • Earlier this year, the Institute for Nonprofit News surveyed member newsrooms about the diversity of their staff. “With more than 285 members, INN found that ‘about 60’ are led by people of color and 30 are dedicated to covering underrepresented communities,” Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reports. “Despite [an] upward trend, INN found the majority of respondents said their staff does not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”
  • For The Nation, Tom Scocca reflects on his career in the fractured world of independent journalism. “As it seemed I was swinging from limb to limb through a flourishing jungle of journalistic opportunity, a desert had been advancing behind me,” he writes. “People still wanted to read the writing, but the circulatory system of money that had made the writing possible was punctured and bleeding out, and draining into Silicon Valley.”
  • Yesterday, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson released All We Can Save, an anthology of “provocative and illuminating essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement.” Contributors to the book include the climate journalists Emily Atkin, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Amy Westervelt, and Naomi Klein. Atkin’s newsletter, HEATED, is convening a book club to discuss the work; you can find out more here.
  • This year’s Time 100 list, an annual roster of influential people, is out, and journalists feature on it. They include Julie K. Brown, of the Miami Herald, whose reporting helped lead to the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein; Shiori Ito, a Japanese journalist who became a leading figure in that country’s #MeToo movement; and Lina Attalah, whose independent news site, Mada Masr, has faced relentless harassment from the authorities in Egypt.
  • Officials in Philadelphia disabled a tool that allowed users to enter a person’s name and see what properties they own. The city cited security concerns given the “temperament of events right now.” (Activists have staged protests outside officials’ homes; it’s not clear how they located them.) The tool still identifies owners if users enter specific addresses, and raw data remains available for download. The Philadelphia Inquirer has more.
  • And Mario Koran, a reporter for The Guardian, reflects on his experiences of journalism, alcoholism, and incarceration. “As I’ve written about communities of color pushing back against the forces that oppress them,” he writes, “I’ve come to understand that addiction is like the criminal justice system—it imprints on you and calls you back, even when you think you’re free.”

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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.