When Will the Media Stop Falling for Republican Tricks?

Unbelievably, it has happened again.

As the political world waited breathlessly for the release of the Mueller report, Trump’s handpicked attorney general released a risibly curt 4-page letter purporting to be a summary of the collusion probe’s findings. It was as notable for what it did not say as for what it did. Barr is a skillful lawyer. He judiciously avoided making any claims about what the Trump campaign actually did in association with Russia, while choosing to focus only on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s claim that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Trump officials on the grounds of collusion. Barr’s letter also muddied the waters over allegations that Trump obstructed of justice, stating essentially that Mueller had skirted the question of whether the president could or should be indicted for such a charge, without exonerating him, and without providing any specifics as to Mueller’s reasoning. Notably, Barr himself did insert his own specious reasoning on the topic, despite not having been asked his opinion on the matter.

These are obvious loopholes big enough to drive a T-14 Armata tank through—and any responsible journalist should have known better. Yet, based on this flimsy cover story, the entire press apparatus engaged in a week of massive self-flagellation, even as Trump and the entire Republican Party treated it as fait accompli that the president had been cleared on all charges.

The underlying facts of Russian collusion never depended on Donald Trump, Jr., much less President Trump himself, being indicted on charges of conspiracy. Mens rea—the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing—for conspiracy is incredibly difficult to prove in a case like this, and based solely on the infamous Trump Tower meeting, it would be simple enough for all parties to state that Russians offered dirt on Clinton and they refused to take it. Although, they notably never contacted the FBI about this offer. Who could reasonably prove otherwise?

None of it passes the smell test, of course. We are being asked to believe that 1) Russia tried to collude with the Trump campaign, but 2) the Trump campaign participated in no such way; 3) all of Trump’s weirdly obsequious behavior toward Russia and Vladimir Putin is somehow unrelated; and 4) Trump openly and self-admittedly obstructed justice on national television and with dozens of tweets, but somehow didn’t actually obstruct justice. Does any of that seem likely? Of course not.

A responsible journalist would look at all of this and reasonably suspect that Mueller’s full report will show a lot of deeply disturbing and untoward behavior that most reasonable people would call at least mild collusion. But for whatever reason, Mueller didn’t think the evidence was considered prosecutable. It’s also possible that Trump’s obstruction of justice itself made it impossible to make the case for collusion. Mueller might have felt that the president could not be prosecuted for the obstruction we all witnessed with our own eyes.

Further, a responsible journalist would look at the history of the Trump Administration and treat any public statement by any of its officials with deep skepticism until all the underlying facts were known.

And indeed, slowly but surely, Barr and other Republican figures have been walking back their initial confidence over the report. First, Fox News staple Judge Napolitano admitted that Mueller undoubtedly proved some conspiracy and obstruction but that it may not have been enough. Then, Barr backtracked on the notion that he had provided a “summary” of the report, admitting that it exceeded 300 pages and promising to release a mostly full version of it within weeks, with some redactions.

Now, it’s certainly possible that the final report does clear the president and his staff on most of the principal charges. But that seems highly implausible. We’re likely to see a great deal of smoke that a fundamentally cautious prosecutor felt he could not demonstrably prove came from fire. Many on the left will likely be incensed by some of the decisions made, and historians will spend decades arguing about them. And that’s just on the question of collusion. The reasoning behind failing to indict on obstruction will be even more controversial.

In any case, it very likely won’t be the unequivocal exoneration that Trump and Republicans are claiming. Even if the final report does improbably end up letting him off the hook, that certainly hasn’t been proven at this point.

Trump and the GOP play this game all the time. They make statements wholly disconnected from reality, hoping the press will parrot them long enough to win a news cycle, confuse voters, and ensnare their own base in a world of alternative facts. Then, when the real truth comes out, most people will have stopped paying attention—and beliefs will have hardened on both sides. Now, even if Mueller’s report does end up being fairly damning for the Trump administration, perceptions of the report will already have inured on all sides of the spectrum.

The stakes are too high for reporters to continue falling for this trap, especially as we head into the 2020 election cycle. Any statement by a Trump appointee must be pursued with due diligence until all the facts are known, and nothing should be taken at face value until independently verified.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.