Russiagate skeptics are dunking on the media in the wake of the release of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report on Russian intervention in the election. “If there’s no media reckoning for what they did, don’t ever complain again when people attack the media as ‘Fake News’ or identify them as one of the country’s most toxic and destructive forces,” wrote The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. The Hill media reporter Joe Concha said on Fox & Friends that “this is a day of reckoning for our media like we haven’t seen since the 2016 election. I would say, maybe the worst day ever for our media given all that coverage.” He added: “Think of the stories we missed as a result of Russia.”
Similar arguments about the media’s “obsession” with the Trump-Russia story appear at The Federalist, The Washington Times, RT, and elsewhere. It is a ubiquitous but unexamined claim. And there are several serious problems with it.
First, according to Barr, Mueller conducted an exhaustive investigation, issuing 2,800 subpoenas and conducting 500 search warrants, and confirmed the conclusions of the CIA, NSA, and FBI that Russian operatives “conduct[ed] disinformation and social media operations in the United States to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election,” and that “Russian government actors successfully hacked into and obtained emails” from various Democrats and “disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including Wikileaks.” Those who have long contended that “Russiagate” was a story promoted by Clinton supporters eager to absolve her from any responsibility for losing to Donald Trump are hardly in a position to take victory laps over Barr’s letter to Congress.
Second, as of this writing, we have not seen Robert Mueller’s report, nor had an accounting of why he made the prosecutorial decisions that he did. Barr’s summary is artfully worded, clearing Trump of conspiracy with the Russian government while remaining silent on whether the campaign coordinated with nongovernmental actors, and leaving unanswered the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. As Marcy Wheeler wrote for The New Republic, Barr had to “go through contortions to avoid charging” Trump with the crime. We should not allow the goalposts to be moved in a way that lets the president of the United States off the hook for potential felonies.
And the crux of the story was always the possibility that the regime had pushed for sanctions relief as a quid pro quo for Russia’s assistance—a question left unanswered by Barr’s summary. Barr cleared Trump of criminal wrongdoing, but didn’t address the counter-espionage questions related to whether Trump had been compromised somehow as a result of negotiating the Trump Tower Moscow deal deep into the 2016 campaign, or through other business dealings.
Several investigations also remain ongoing, and more indictments could theoretically be forthcoming in the future. We only know that Robert Mueller’s office is done charging people.
But the biggest problem with claims that the media focused too much on the Mueller probe is the premise itself. While Russiagate has led to a cottage industry of Twitter-famous “Resistance grifters” making outlandish claims that Trump—and people like Glenn Greenwald—are Putin’s “puppets,” real journalists did their jobs covering an objectively huge story.
It is bizarre to suggest that the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the president of the United States after he fired his FBI director and privately told two high-level Russian officials that he had “faced great pressure because of Russia” but that it had been “taken off” with Comey’s dismissal is not a legitimately massive story. The same is true of allegations that Trump obstructed justice (something that William Barr had categorically ruled out charging him with before becoming AG and being read in on the investigation).
And over the course of the 22 months since Mueller’s appointment, there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of highly significant developments, each of which merited a decent amount of coverage.
The president’s former campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, personal attorney and fixer, national-security adviser, and longtime political adviser have all been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes, or are currently awaiting trial, and while those cases weren’t related to Russia directly, they all sprung from Mueller’s probe and all of them kept the Mueller investigation in the headlines. Mueller’s team indicted 25 Russian nationals and three companies for their alleged roles in Russiagate. And those close to Trump had over 100 contacts with Russian actors during the campaign, according to The New York Times, many of which they hid from investigators.
Each and every time Trump dangled a pardon or Rudy Giuliani disclosed too much to reporters or Paul Manafort violated the terms of his release while awaiting trial, it was a significant and legitimate news story. Those claiming that the media focused too much attention on the Mueller probe should specify which stories they believe didn’t merit extensive reporting.
We should also acknowledge that no human being on Earth has done more to keep the Trump-Russia narrative in the news than Donald Trump. Not only does he have a compulsive tendency to randomly blurt out “no collusion, no collusion”–a claim he’s made 231 times since mid-2017, according to The Washington Post—he’s also kept Russia front and center by refusing to implement sanctions that Congress passed against Russian actors, repeatedly meeting with Vladimir Putin with no advisers or note-takers present, and arguing that Russia was within its rights to annex Crimea. When the president of the United States tells reporters that the president of Russia has “probably” ordered assassinations and poisonings, “but I rely on them; it’s not in our country,” that’s objectively newsworthy.
Remember that there would never have been a special-counsel investigation had Trump simply kept his cool—and his mouth shut—in regard to Russiagate. James Comey was bound just as is Robert Mueller by the DOJ opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Trump made the investigation a huge international story, and there’s nothing for serious reporters to “reckon with” for having covered it as such. As media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote for The Washington Post, “It’s important to acknowledge the value of the serious journalism because there’s a real risk that news organizations will take the edges off their coverage of this subject now.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece referred to Joe Concha as a media reporter at Fox. In fact, he is a reporter at The Hill, and made the comments quoted when appearing on Fox & Friends. The text has been corrected.