They lie about everything. And now we know that includes Attorney General William Barr, who brazenly lied about the contents of the Mueller report during a press conference held just hours before its release on Thursday. Apparently unconcerned that the obvious falsehoods he was peddling on Trump’s behalf would be debunked within hours when the Mueller report was made public that day at 11 AM, Barr’s completely dishonest reimagining of Mueller’s sprawling investigation ought to signal a long overdue turning point for the press. This ought to be the moment when journalists acknowledge to themselves, and possibly to the public, that Donald Trump’s radical administration is incapable of being honest, about anything, ever.
The Trump White House’s habitual lying isn’t going to change. But it’s long past time for the press to break its habit of believing administration utterances—of treating its statements as remotely factual, even when it comes to extraordinary issues such as colluding with a foreign government and obstructing justice. I realize that’s an extreme premise for the Beltway press to adopt, since it often prefers to cling to “Both Sides” journalism in order to prove it’s not liberally biased and deflect allegations that it’s out to “get” Trump.
But here’s the bottom line: Barr embarrassed the press corps and made them look foolish when he issued a four-page press release in March supposedly summarizing Mueller’s 448-page (!) report. Reporters and editors then ran with it, on the assumption that Barr was being honest and factual, which we now know was a huge mistake. “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,” blared the GOP-friendly headlines, even though at the time not a single reporter had any idea what Mueller had found since nobody was allowed to read his report. Perhaps embarrassed by that fact, lots of journalists then spent days pretending they’d read the report and suggesting it was time for Democrats to move on.
The release of the Mueller report last week seemed to change something, at least momentarily, with the Beltway media’s usual couched language giving away to more realistic—and more stinging—observations. “One takeaway throughout is how frequently White House aides lied to reporters,” observed Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, after reading Mueller’s voluminous work. “Barr comes out of this looking rather ridiculous,” added Sam Stein of the Daily Beast. “They’re telling us there’s nothing in this [report.] That’s B.S. and they know it,” noted CNN’s Chris Cuomo, hours after the Mueller volume was released.
“The implications could be huge,” wrote Kyle Pope at the Columbia Journalism Review on Thursday night. “Mueller could, for example, finally be the turn that convinces a surprisingly credulous White House press corps—credulous in spite of everything we’ve seen—that Trump’s words have lost their value, that his history, now enshrined in Mueller, of lying to and about the press to further his interests and save his presidency should now be reflected in everything we say about him.”
Having been disappointed by the media’s coverage of Trump for years now, I’m reluctant to suggest we have actually reached any kind of tipping point, or argue that the news media, after being so blatantly misled by Barr and the Trump cabal, are now willing to walk away from the idea that anyone in this GOP administration represents an honest broker. They ought to. But I’m sure the institutional, political, and social urge to keep pretending the administration deals in good faith remains strong.
It still feels there’s a part of the press psyche that thinks, “Well, they would never lie about something like X because X is so serious and important and it would be so reckless and unthinkable.” And then the Trump team goes ahead and lies about X anyway, aggressively, and for weeks on end.
The idea that this corrupt administration was ever going to be truthful about a criminal investigation report that, in theory, had the power to end Trump’s presidency, was always a press fantasy. But up until the Mueller report’s release, the press largely played along with that pleasing narrative that of course, the United States attorney general is being honest and forthright. By doing so, the press got duped.
Some of the nuggets Barr left out of his March press release? The fact that when Trump was told that Mueller had been appointed special counsel back in May 2017, eight days after FBI director James Comey was fired, he slumped down in his chair and announced he was “fucked,” and that it would mark the “end” of his presidency. Or that Mueller’s report had delivered 11 detailed instances of possible “obstructive” behavior by Trump. Meanwhile, on the eve of the report’s release, Barr insisted “The White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.” But the redacted Mueller report noted, “After more than a year of discussion, the President declined to be interviewed. … He did not agree to provide written answers on obstruction.” And oh yeah, Trump answered, “I do not recall” 30 times when responding to the narrow set of questions he agreed to address from Mueller’s team.
Other damning revelations from the published report included:
- Russian intelligence targeted Hillary Clinton’s personal office five hours after Trump publicly requested it on July 27, 2016.
- Trump’s personal attorney, Don McGahn, threatened to quit in the spring of 2017 after Trump urged him to “do crazy shit,” like fire Mueller.
- White House communications director Hope Hicks wanted to disclose that Russians had offered Don Jr. information helpful to the campaign. But the president refused, explicitly ordering Hicks to issue a statement that covered up the true purpose of the Trump Tower meeting.
Magically, Barr failed to include all of that in his March 24 press release, a document which seemed solely designed to mislead journalists. It worked for a while. Now, recent events should mark an obvious turning point for the press.