Opinion

Barr's Letter Exonerated American Journalism, Not Donald Trump | Opinion

Attorney General William Barr has released a three-and-a-half page summary of a summary of a federal investigative case file no one in America outside the Special Counsel’s Office has seen—so of course the finger-pointing in U.S. media has begun. Journalists the nation over are accusing one another of getting things wrong at a time when no one yet knows what getting things right would look like.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a corporate journalist, freelance journalist, or independent citizen journalist, chances are if you’ve been writing about Trump and Russia over the last two years someone somewhere is right now accusing you of being bad at what you do.

Two food fights in particular are dominating the media landscape: corporate media is fighting with Republican pundits inside the beltway and beyond, defending itself against accusations it jumped the gun in focusing so much on the Trump-Russia investigation; meanwhile, and partly as a way of taking the heat off itself, corporate media is lobbing grenades at independent citizen journalism, which it claims misread the public evidence of Trump’s guilt and over-promised what a federal criminal investigation into Trump’s clandestine activities would produce.

And as the media devolves into internecine conflict, Trump struts before banks of cameras declaiming that he has been fully exonerated of even a whiff of misconduct.

I’m here to say that everyone’s wrong.

Trump is most obviously wrong, as the claim he has made daily for two years—that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would find not even a scintilla of evidence that he obstructed justice or coordinated with the Russians either directly or indirectly—turned out to be not just false but wildly false. Mueller found enough proof of obstruction that he felt Congress needed to make the judgment on whether an impeachable offense had occurred, and declined to offer any assessment of the mountain of public evidence himself. As for coordination, Mueller only concluded that he did not have enough proof of conspiracy—a single variety of collusion with a hostile foreign power, but not the only one—to convict Mr. Trump. As to just how much proof of conspiracy Mueller has short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, no one in America outside the Special Counsel’s Office and Attorney General Barr’s immediate circle of deputies and aides has any idea.

The more surprising news is that, contrary to what Republicans have been opining, American media—of all varieties—actually got almost everything in the Trump-Russia case correct.

That’s right: media quite nearly nailed the Mueller Report, at least as we understand its findings thus far.

If you look back at the breathless coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation on TV, radio, print, and internet over the last two years, one thing you’ll never find is anyone saying that Trump struck a before-the-fact agreement with the Russian government, tacitly or expressly, to assist its two campaigns against the 2016 election: a disinformation campaign run by the Internet Research Agency, and a hacking campaign run by the GRU (Russian military intelligence.) No prominent journalists said there was evidence of such before-the-fact agreements between Trump—or anyone in his orbit—and the IRA or GRU, probably because no such evidence ever entered the public sphere.

On Sunday we learned that Mueller agrees with journalists’ assessment.

On the matter of obstruction of justice, American journalism seemed to agree on one thing: the public evidence alone made the conversation over whether Trump had obstructed justice worth having. While some journalists thought the evidence fell short of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, and some felt it met and exceeded that standard, everyone concurred that there was a “there” there and that Mueller would think so, too.

And everyone was right.

In fact, the media was so correct on obstruction that—while it couldn’t have predicted Mueller would take the extraordinary step of refusing to draw any conclusion on obstruction, despite it being his appointed responsibility—it correctly captured the push-and-pull of the obstruction case as to the sufficiency of the evidence. In so doing, it presaged the very struggle with the evidence that the Mueller Report apparently manifests.

The ongoing invective in media—right-wing punditry versus corporate media, and corporate media versus freelance and independent citizen journalism—largely rests on a misunderstanding of what sort of “collusion” anyone in media was on about over the last two years. In short, the collusion allegation against Trump—if not the one he’s ever chosen to acknowledge; he’s only ever wanted to discuss the narrow conspiracy allegation Mueller found non-chargeable—has always been this: that Trump was persuaded by private offers of foreign money to alter America’s foreign policy to benefit (primarily) Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Collusion of this sort would be charged not as a conspiracy, but as bribery or aiding and abetting crimes committed by these other countries or, quite frankly, as the sort of after-the-fact obstructive activities Mueller now wants Congress to look at. Trump himself has presaged the disclosure of such venal acts by saying that he thought he shouldn’t have to bankrupt himself just to run for high office—the sort of misunderstanding of what public service is that tends to preview illicit acts down the line.

Is there evidence of these other sorts of collusion in the Mueller Report? Certainly yes, as we know there’s ample proof in the public sphere, and Mueller has shown himself (for instance, on obstruction) to be willing to make the public record part of his case file.

Mueller appears to have farmed out these other possible collusion cases—the ones involving neither conspiracy nor “coordination” as Mueller defined it (in essence, as a conspiracy)—to other federal jurisdictions. Right now there are cases in the Southern District of New York, Eastern District of New York, Eastern District of Virginia, and the United States Attorney’s Office in D.C. that are looking at Trump and/or Trumpworld’s collusion with foreign powers. And there may well be an ongoing FBI and CIA counterintelligence investigation into the still-open question of whether Trump has been compromised by a foreign power. Certainly, we know that a number of Congressional committees will be looking at collusion with a much wider lens than Mueller appears to have done.

So in short, everyone should calm down. Trump continues to fabricate stories as he always has, and the media continues to be an imperfect but frequently accurate and admirable organ of public vigilance. The state of the nation may be unstable, but it has nothing to do with media coverage of the ongoing Trump-Russia scandal.

Seth Abramson is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and author of Proof Of Collusion (Simon & Schuster, 2018.) On Twitter @SethAbramson​

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​

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