On Thursday morning, Attorney General William Barr held a press conference to discuss the then-impending release of special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report. The press conference -- like Barr's March letter about Mueller's report -- was a transparent attempt to spin Mueller's conclusions in advance of their public release. While many observers noted the absurdity of Barr holding a press conference to field questions about an as-yet-unreleased report, numerous media figures nonetheless trumpeted Barr's spin.
In particular, reporters and outlets quoted this odd statement:
Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims.
Given what we know about President Donald Trump’s public behavior during the investigation, this claim is laughable (and was made more so once the report was released).
While his lawyers submitted written answers to Mueller, the president was famously reluctant to actually sit for an interview. In November, Trump said that “we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt” when asked about agreeing to in-person questioning. During a December appearance on Fox News Sunday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was asked about whether Trump would agree to an interview, and he responded, “Over my dead body.” For months, Giuliani and Trump had expressed worry that an interview with Mueller would be a “perjury trap” and made clear it was to be avoided.
In addition to Trump’s refusal to sit for an interview, the Mueller report itself makes clear the president took a series of actions to undermine the probe, many of which either happened in public or were reported on over the past two years. From the report:
The President launched public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to the President, while in private, the President engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation. For instance, the President attempted to remove the Special Counsel; he sought to have Attorney General Sessions unrecuse himself and limit the investigation; he sought to prevent public disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 meeting between Russians and campaign officials; and he used public forums to attack potential witnesses who might offer adverse information and to praise witnesses who declined to cooperate with the government.
It’s simply bizarre and false to call this “unfettered access” to the administration and campaign.
Yet as the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign latched onto Barr's claim, many journalists did the same.
Tweets from the RNC and the Trump campaign called special attention to this line, seemingly as a defense against obstruction accusations. Right-wing media figures such as Katie Pavlich, The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, Fox Business’ Trish Regan, and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz followed suit.
Naturally, as soon as the redacted report was released, the claim that the Trump administration “fully cooperated” was further demolished. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” reads one part of the report. Another notes that Trump “engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.” And in yet another, explaining why Trump didn’t sit for an interview, Mueller acknowledges that investigators were forced to weigh whether it was worth issuing a subpoena given that “the President would not be interviewed voluntarily.”
By now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that this administration isn’t particularly honest and cannot simply be given the benefit of the doubt in these situations. In fact, just last month, news organizations around the country took Barr’s word at face value only to look foolish for days to come.
Why do journalists keep falling for this, and what will it take to convince them to stop?
That’s a question that’s come up repeatedly since the 2016 election. It seems that there are many journalists unwilling to recognize that this presidency is unique in how untruthful it is. Yes, all politicians lie to some extent, but none have ever been so blatant as this administration. It’s not enough to simply echo someone’s words without clarifying the context in which they are said (or noting if they are blatant lies). At its core, journalism must be about holding the powerful accountable, not helping the powerful disseminate lies. There are many lessons that need to be learned going into the 2020 election, but few are as simple or as important as contextualizing the words of politicians.