The Media Today

(Still) waiting for Mueller

April 8, 2019

After more than a year of fervent media attention, there was an air of anti-climax when William Barr, the attorney general, reported to Congress, a little over two weeks ago, that Robert Mueller had found no prosecutable conspiracy in his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Even though Mueller punted on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, the president and his outriders quickly claimed total exoneration. Journalists on the right and on the leftprematurely, at best; in abjectly bad faith, at worst—characterized months of Mueller coverage as breathless, yet baseless. Cable news punditry—exhibit A: Rachel Maddow and MSNBC—took the heaviest hammering.

It would be wrong to say that the dominant media reaction to Barr’s Mueller summary was self-flagellation. As soon as it was released, many reporters and commentators stressed that news outlets had just been doing their jobs; in any case, we hadn’t seen the full report yet. Nonetheless, in the two weeks since, it does feel like we’ve seen a narrative shift. At the end of March, The New York Times broke the news that Mueller’s report runs to more than 300 pages; Barr, in his summary, quoted just 101 words from them. Last week, the same paper reported that some of Mueller’s investigators believe Barr “failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for Trump than Barr indicated.” Other outlets soon matched the story.

ICYMI: Freelancers have a name for endless rounds of edits

In recent days, this reporting—allied to the growing feeling that key information is being withheld—has driven a fresh skepticism of Barr and his stated conclusions, not least on cable news. That leaks had finally come from inside Mueller’s office was held up, in many quarters, as highly significant given its long track record of discretion. “If we’re to believe… all these reports that have been put out in the last week about the displeasure that’s being felt by Mueller’s team over how Barr characterized this report, then I think it would be fair to call this a cover-up,” The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand told MSNBC’s Joy Reid yesterday. Barr—who called Mueller’s obstruction probe “fatally misconceived” in a memo to the Justice Department before his nomination for attorney general—is “deeply, deeply conflicted,” Bertrand added.

As Barr prepares a redacted version of Mueller’s report for Congress, journalists, once again, find themselves playing a waiting game. “Maybe there should be a ‘number of days’ clock on cable news screens?” CNN’s Brian Stelter mused on Friday, two weeks after Mueller delivered his report to Barr. In the interim, it feels like everything and nothing has changed. The delivery was a watershed moment, yet the Justice Department remains watertight—we still don’t know all that’s in the report, nor if we will ever find out. The stakes, if anything, seem even higher than before. As the Times wrote last week, some in Mueller’s team worry that “because Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.” The longer the wait for closure, the more public opinion will ossify.

Big stories are most compelling when they reach big, satisfying conclusions, so it’s no surprise that Barr’s initial summary of Mueller’s findings felt anti-climactic. It is imperative, while we wait for more details, that we push back against that feeling—not to contrive a big finish, but because this story has yet to reach its climax, period. It will only do so when we know exactly what Mueller concluded. We should urgently demand that his full report be published, then apply rigorous legal scrutiny to whatever redactions Barr makes. It’s what the public wants, and it’s what transparency demands.

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Below, more on Barr, Trump, and the latest Mueller waiting game:

  • Barr examination: As I wrote in January, Barr’s confirmation process felt under-covered given what was at stake. In recent days, the attorney general has attracted much more coverage, and some sharp scrutiny. For The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin runs through the (apparently miserly) choices Barr is making as he decides what to redact. In The Guardian, meanwhile, Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports that Justice Department officials were told Barr had been invited to meet them last summer—on the same day he delivered his “unsolicited” Mueller memo to officials.
  • Contradictions, part I: After initially boasting that he had been exonerated by the special counsel, Trump went back to excoriating the probe over the weekend: “Looks like Bob Mueller’s team of 13 Trump Haters & Angry Democrats are illegally leaking information to the press while the Fake News Media make up their own stories with or without sources – sources no longer matter to our corrupt & dishonest Mainstream Media, they are a Joke!,” he tweeted. The irony of made-up leaks was not lost on the press corps.
  • Contradictions, part II: After initially promising, during the 2016 campaign, that he would release his tax returns, Trump still has not done so. In an interview on Fox News yesterday, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, said that House Democrats will “never” get to see them, after the House Ways and Mean Committee demanded them from the Internal Revenue Service last week.
  • Remember him? Also on Fox News yesterday, Devin Nunes, the pro-Trump congressman and top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was preparing to send eight criminal referrals to Barr’s Justice Department. While he wouldn’t divulge identifying details, some of the referrals are related to leaks of classified information.

Other notable stories:

  • Kirstjen Nielsen is out as secretary of Homeland Security: she resigned—unwillingly, it would seem—after a meeting at the White House yesterday. Per CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Nielsen, who fell out of favor with Trump over her handling of his much-hyped crisis at the border, made a last-ditch appeal to keep her job last week, addressing the president through TV interviews, including on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. But Trump may have listened instead to Fox’s Lou Dobbs, and others on the right, who called, in recent weeks, for Nielsen’s ouster.
  • The British government announced plans for a regulator which would hold tech companies—and their senior executives—responsible for harmful content. Meanwhile, in The Guardian, Emily Bell says she’s skeptical of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent advocacy for more regulation in Europe. “What we are seeing from both Facebook and Google is an epic public relations push to become champions of regulation while avoiding the imposition of rules that would damage their operating profits too much,” Bell writes.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach checks in with Ruth Sherlock, an NPR reporter covering the families ISIS left behind in Syria after its “caliphate” crumbled. Last week, “Sherlock launched a four-episode series, ‘How it Ends,’ on NPR’s Embedded podcast, focused on the gray area ISIS refugees inhabit.”
  • The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reports that Megyn Kelly, the former Fox anchor who was abruptly axed by NBC last year, is campaigning for a new media gig as the 2020 election approaches. “It’s going to be, by most accounts, a challenging reboot,” Grove writes. “A spot survey by The Daily Beast of her most financially rewarding possible destinations—ABC, CBS, CNN—didn’t turn up any current enthusiasm for her services.”
  • The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten profiles Craig Carton, a New York sports shock jock who was convicted, in November, of conspiracy, securities fraud, and wire fraud related to gambling and a ticket-resale scheme.
  • Lawmakers in New York state last week “banned” police from routinely releasing mugshots for publication by the media—but ambiguities in the new law mean some police departments will likely continue the practice, David Andreatta explains for Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle. Writing for CJR last year, Corey Hutchins weighed the ethics of publishing mugshots.
  • Valerie Plame, the former spy who was infamously outed in the media following a leak from George W. Bush’s White House, is mulling a run for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico. Even though she didn’t report Plame’s identity, Judith Miller, a reporter at the Times, was sent to jail after refusing to disclose her source: Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby.
  • Congressmen Assemble! According to CNN’s Maeve Reston, Chris Evans, the actor who has played Captain America, is inviting lawmakers to be interviewed for a “civic engagement website” he’s planning to launch. His aim? “Reducing partisanship and promoting respectful discourse.”

ICYMI: I wrote a story that became a legend. Then I discovered it wasn’t true.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that William Barr told Congress that Robert Mueller found “no collusion” in his investigation into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. That language has been updated to more accurately reflect Barr’s statement.

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.