Barr and BuzzFeed: What Two Stories Reveal About Coverage and Commentary In The Age Of Trump

Below is my column on the concerns raised about the media coverage from last week. As I have stated, my concern is not with the BuzzFeed story per se, but how it was used to start a feeding frenzy of speculation. The treatment of the two major stories of last week (the Barr and BuzzFeed stories) speaks volumes about the consistent pattern of coverage and commentary in the age of Trump.

Here is the column:

In “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway has a line that says as much about him as the character in the novel: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

The line could easily fit many in the media and Congress this past week, when they moved from one major story at the start of the week (the nomination of William Barr to become attorney general) to another at the end (the controversy about a BuzzFeed News story making allegations against President Trump).

In one week, many journalists and members of Congress showed bias in coming to two diametrically different conclusions regarding these two stories.

After denouncing a memorandum written by Barr – which was deemed positive to Trump –  as wild speculation, journalists and Trump opponents then embraced a single, uncorroborated story against Trump as the long-awaited “slam dunk” for Trump’s demise.

The week began with the various experts and commentators excoriating Barr for a memorandum in which he discussed in detail the legal implications of Special Counsel Robert Mueller examining whether the president’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey could be considered obstruction of justice.

The week ended with the same media outlets and experts discussing the imminent start of impeachment proceedings or even the resignation of President Trump over a single story in BuzzFeed that was later refuted in the first such public statement from Mueller’s office.

Moving from one story to another made little difference, as Hemingway once observed.

The statement from Mueller’s office shot down the BuzzFeed story alleging there was evidence that the president had told his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

The statement from Mueller’s office said: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Public attention is now focused on how TV news hosts and legal experts have struggled to defend their prior predictions of doom for the president.

It has become all too common for us to see and read breathless media accounts about the sky falling on Donald Trump and his presidency. The BuzzFeed case of uncorroborated reporting was just the latest “smoking gun” story supposedly showing wrongdoing by the president.

The contrast in the coverage with the Barr and BuzzFeed stories is telling and is another black mark against the media and Trump critics.

It has become all too common for us to see and read breathless media accounts about the sky falling on Donald Trump and his presidency. The BuzzFeed case of uncorroborated reporting was just the latest “smoking gun” story supposedly showing wrongdoing by the president.

I testified Wednesday at the Senate confirmation hearing for Barr, supporting his confirmation. I have known Barr – a former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush – for many years and know he is extraordinarily qualified to become attorney general again.

One of the most common criticisms of Democratic senators and legal experts before and at the hearing was that Barr acted improperly in writing a long and comprehensive memorandum to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on one of the commonly disclosed grounds for possible criminal charges against Trump: obstruction of justice, linked to the president’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

News organizations – including CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times – ran stories and opinion pieces on how Barr’s focus on obstruction of justice was “bizarre” and “strange” and how it was that was “based entirely on made-up facts.”

These criticism were wrong. Many of these same critics have explored the same possible use of the law against the obstruction of justice before and after Barr’s memo came out.

Obstruction of justice is clearly one of the core potential crimes Mueller is investigating – and the Comey firing is one of the core acts under investigation.

One could therefore understand if Barr is a bit confused. While his memorandum was still being attacked as reckless speculation, the media went into a free-for-all over the imminent use of subornation of perjury as the charge against President Trump.

This was based on a BuzzFeed story with virtually no specific evidence or corroboration beyond a supposed leak from two federal officials reportedly connected to the special counsel’s investigation.

That does not mean that all of the story is wrong. Indeed, many of us previously explored the possible use of subornation of perjury allegations against Trump. That is the point.

While the analysts were irresponsible to assume a “slam dunk” of a criminal case, there was nothing irresponsible in exploring the use of that criminal provision as a basis for either indictment or impeachment of the president.

That brings us back to the treatment of Barr and his memo. Critics like Miklaila Fogel and Benjamin Wittes wrote that Barr’s exploration of the basis for an obstruction charge based on the Comey firing was “laying out the argument that Bob Mueller has made up a crime to investigate, the document is based entirely on made-up facts.”

Of course, Lawfare Editor Wittes explored the very same theory in columns before and after he wrote that criticism.

Likewise, Georgetown University Law Professor Martin Lederman wrote: “Barr was simply conjuring from whole cloth a preposterously long set of assumptions about how Special Counsel Mueller was adopting extreme and unprecedented-within-DOJ views about every pertinent question and investigatory decision.”

In reality, the firing of Comey was the impetus for many (including me) in calling for the appointment of a special counsel. Witnesses have confirmed that they have been questioned by Mueller’s team on the facts and possible motivation for the firing.

Moreover, it has been widely reported that former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein opened an obstruction of justice investigation into the Comey firing shorting before handing over the investigation to the special counsel.

Despite the ample public record and literally thousands of articles and blogs on the obstruction theory, Barr was attacked for making unsupported assumptions in a memorandum simply exploring the possible implications of extending the scope of obstruction,

Notably, Barr stated upfront that he was “in the dark” about what Special Counsel Mueller is planning. The time to raise such concerns is before any charge or allegations is brought by the Justice Department to encourage consideration of these countervailing issues.

Otherwise, these difficult questions might have to be litigated after the release of charges or a report without a full understanding of the position of the Justice Department. That was the responsible thing to do.

The BuzzFeed coverage shows the double standard that is being applied to people like Barr. While any report is treated as ample basis for calling for resignations or impeachment investigations, a scholarly memorandum sent to Justice Department officials on one insular issue of law is deemed “strange” and “irresponsible.”

It is doubtful that Barr would have faced the same criticism if he wrote to Rosenstein how obstruction provisions provide ample foundation for any charge related to an improper firing by Trump. It was the conclusions, not the assumptions, of Barr that seemed to trigger the negative response he received.

In the end, it is perfectly appropriate to consider the legal basis for either an obstruction or subornation charge against Trump. Indeed, such charges could well be established by the evidence found by the special counsel – or it might not.

Ironically, if there is subornation of perjury evidence against the president, Bill Barr is precisely the attorney general that these critics should want confirmed.

While scrupulously ignored by many of his critics, Barr repeatedly stated in writing and in testimony that he believed a president could commit obstruction in office. He expressly disagreed with members of President Trump’s legal team in their position that the Constitution makes an obstruction theory impossible for conduct by a sitting president.

Barr also expressly stated that if a president encouraged anyone to lie to Congress, it would be a federal crime.C

If a president is to be impeached or even indicted, it will be a deeply traumatic moment for our country, which remains deeply divided on all issues involving Trump. If that moment comes, it will be a figure like Barr who can assure the public on both sides that the action is based on the legal analysis and not political animus.

In the meantime, both members of Congress and the media might want to reconsider their attacks against the Barr memorandum following the feeding frenzy surrounding the BuzzFeed article.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public Iiterest law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense attorney.

105 thoughts on “Barr and BuzzFeed: What Two Stories Reveal About Coverage and Commentary In The Age Of Trump”

  1. While our leftists friends continue to make statements that do not match facts I thought it appropriate to post this entire article which is behind a paywall. It shows the ugliness of the left , even some on this blog, and how neither they nor the media can be trusted.

    The High School Deplorables

    MAGA hats, the March for Life, Covington Catholic—and the mob.

    The Editorial BoardJan. 22, 2019 7:07 p.m. ET
    Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., Jan. 20.
    Of the most culturally deplorable boxes one can check in progressive America in 2019, the boys of Covington Catholic High School have most of them: white, male, Christian, attendees at the annual March for Life in Washington, and wearers of MAGA hats. What’s not to dislike? So when four minutes of video footage emerged online this weekend showing the students appearing to harass a Native American Vietnam veteran named Nathan Phillips, America’s media and cultural elite leapt to judgment.

    A short video clip of student Nick Sandmann supposedly “smirking” as Mr. Phillips banged his drum in the student’s face went viral, and instantly the boys of Covington Catholic in Kentucky were branded racists.

    Best-selling author Reza Aslan tweeted that the high school junior had a “punchable face.” Former Democratic Party chief Howard Dean opined that Covington Catholic is “a hate factory.” GQ’s Nathaniel Friedman urged people to “Doxx ‘em all,” i.e., make their personal information public.

    Meanwhile, mainstream news outlets published misleading accounts of what happened based on incomplete information. And pundits on the right and left rushed to demonstrate their own virtue by trashing high school students as somehow symptomatic of America’s cultural rot in the Age of Trump.

    Only it turns out there was a much longer video, nearly two hours, showing that almost everything first reported about the confrontation was false, or at least much more complicated. The boys had been taunted by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted racist and homophobic slurs. Far from the boys confronting Mr. Phillips, he confronted them as they were waiting near the Lincoln Memorial for their bus.

    It also turns out that Mr. Phillips is not the Vietnam veteran he was reported to be in most stories. On Tuesday the Washington Post offered a correction, noting that while Mr. Phillips served in the Marines from 1972 to 1976, he was “never deployed to Vietnam.”

    Some of the students did respond to Mr. Phillips by doing the Tomahawk Chop, and it would have been better had they all walked away. But on the whole these teenagers were calm amid the provocations and far less incendiary than the adults who taunted them and the progressive high priests who denounced them.

    The new information has people who had so eagerly cast the first stones hastily deleting their tweets. Still, it is telling that some of the most disgusting tweets were the work of the blue-check elites who pride themselves on their tolerance. More surprising is the rush to judgment by those who might have been expected to consider the boys innocent until proven guilty, or at least until all the evidence is in.

    On Saturday the boys’ school issued a joint statement with the Covington Diocese saying they “condemn” the students for their actions and were considering appropriate action “including expulsion.” A post on National Review said the boys might as well have “just spit on the cross.” And the March for Life distanced itself from the “reprehensible behavior” of the marchers from Covington.

    Many of these early critics have now apologized or walked back their initial condemnations. But these social injustices perpetrated on social media are not so easily redressed. Covington Catholic was closed Tuesday for security reasons.

    Most of those who so eagerly maligned these boys will face no lasting consequences, while the boys themselves will always have to wonder, when they are turned down for a job or a school, whether someone had Googled their name and found only half this story. This is an ugly moment in America, all right, but there are few things uglier than a righteous leftist mob.

  2. The Nation article authored by Damon Linker agrees with JT.
    We at home do not subscribe to any social media accounts but we do enjoy reminding friends that we laugh hard at Twitter, FB and IG users because they are so silly

    “How Twitter could be the death of liberal democracy”
    https://theweek.com/articles/818951/how-twitter-could-death-liberal-democracy

    “This has been a deeply demoralizing week for American media and democratic culture — one with implications that may well point to something far worse.

    First, on Thursday night, Buzzfeed published a sensational scoop alleging that President Trump suborned the perjury of his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. As dozens of reputable media outlets and many more media personalities on Twitter pronounced over the following day, this was an act that if true would be a very big deal….Yet on Friday night, the story suffered a severe body blow when Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office issued a sweeping statement disputing its accuracy.

    Then, on Saturday, a video appeared on Twitter purporting to show a group of high schoolers confronting and mocking an elderly

    Yet both are indicative of something ominous that’s happening to our political culture. Extreme partisan polarization is combining with the technology of social media, and especially Twitter, to provoke a form of recurrent political madness among members of the country’s cultural and intellectual elite. And that madness, when combined with the rising extremism of the populist right, is pushing the country toward a dangerously illiberal forms of politics.

    Cultivating and sustaining liberal politics in a continent-wide nation of well over 300 million people is hard work. This is especially true when ideological polarization and technological developments encourage political and cultural trends that make it harder. Both conspired to help put Donald Trump in the White House. But they’ve also given us an illiberal reaction to his presidency on the part of progressive activists, journalists, and other media personalities.

  3. Floor Statement on William Barr to Serve as Attorney General

    by Ron Wyden

    Jan. 16th, 2019

    Mr. President, I have come to the floor today to discuss the nomination of William Barr to be Attorney General. I am firmly opposed to the nomination for many reasons, from his past attacks on the Mueller investigation to his endorsement of torture. More generally, I am deeply concerned about his view that the President is effectively royalty, that he is unaccountable to the laws of our country or to the constraints imposed by the U.S. Congress.

    That brings me to the topic I want to focus on today, which is Mr. Barr’s dangerous views on surveillance and his contempt for surveillance laws and the Fourth Amendment. This is not a partisan issue. There is a bipartisan coalition in the Congress that has fought to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans. But Mr. Barr’s views, once I have laid them out today, should frighten every member of this body. Because what Mr. Barr has said is that, whether Congress supports broader or narrower surveillance authorities and regardless of whether Congress votes for more checks and balances and oversight, it doesn’t matter. Because Mr. Barr has made it crystal clear that the president can do what he wants.

    This nominee poses a unique threat to the rule of law and the Fourth Amendment. His long-held views, which presumably he will put into practice if he is confirmed, threaten the very notion that Congress or the courts have any say on who in America gets spied on. If he is confirmed as attorney general, Mr. Barr could take us back, and not just twelve years to an era of warrantless wiretapping. As Mr. Barr himself has made clear, he would take us back forty years, to an era before the Church Committee when neither Congress nor the courts had any role at all in checking or overseeing an abusive, out-of-control government.

    Back before the reforms of the 1970s, the government committed one horrific abuse after another. It spied on hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans. It spied on activists. It spied on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It spied on Congress. When these abuses came to light, Congress acted by passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which established a secret court to issue warrants against spies and terrorists.

    Unfortunately, the government violated the law when it implemented its warrantless wiretapping program in 2001. The program included warrantless collection of the content of private communications, including through warrantless targeting of phone numbers and email addresses of people here in the United States. The program also included the bulk collection of telephone and email records of enormous numbers of innocent, law-abiding Americans. All of this occurred, in secret, without warrants or any court oversight at all. And almost no one in Congress, not even the members of the intelligence committees, knew about it.

    And there’s more @

    https://medium.com/@RonWyden/floor-statement-on-william-barr-to-serve-as-attorney-general-9140b7fca23a

    1. Posted to the wrong article earlier, along with the previous comment:

      40 years ago, Church Committee investigated Americans spying on Americans

      Thomas Young
      Wednesday, May 6, 2015

      https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2015/05/06/40-years-ago-church-committee-investigated-americans-spying-on-americans/

      The Church Committee’s investigations also led to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978. The FISA court was originally designed to guard executive branch surveillance programs from the public while ensuring the other branches of government could oversee activities.

      After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, attitudes toward government surveillance changed. “The emergence of this new menace to America and its allies,” Taylor wrote in his essay, “brought an upsurge in political and public support for aggressive surveillance of potential terrorists, and a muting of the concerns that had arisen in the 1970s about the past sins and excessive zeal of U.S. intelligence agencies.”

    2. tremendous irony here considering private citizen and candidate Trump was a target of FISA abuse and now nominates this guy

      well its ironic but not uncommon such patterns exist throughout history

  4. Well I don’t agree with that the MSM was hostile, they covered every word he said and the others couldn’t get no airtime. Maybe I’m remembering wrong but I think one of them said that maybe they should shoot someone on 5th Ave to get covered.

  5. “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

    the line is just as applicable to the feeding frenzy some tasteless, gutless, spineless female cowards have shown in their alleged “womens march” since Trump’s election, all the while saying some truly despiacle things about Jewish people, all given a pass by the self righteous MSM.

    So good to see them self implode.

    👎🏽👎🏽👎🏽
    The Women’s March Follows Farrakhan off a Cliff
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-womens-march-follows-farrakhan-off-a-cliff-11548104190

    Saturday’s Women’s March was much smaller than the original, held in 2017. It was notable not only because far fewer showed up but for who stayed away. The Democratic Party disavowed its partnership with the march, as did the Southern Poverty Law Center, Emily’s List, the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, the Center for American Progress and hundreds of other liberal interest groups. The march had 550 official partners in 2018 and less than half as many this year. One by one, the pink hats came off.
    What happened? The group that yelled loudest about Mr. Trump’s bigotry was brought low by bigotry of its own. Tablet reported last month that at the first meeting to organize the Women’s March, four days after Mr. Trump’s election, two of the group’s leaders, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory, insisted that, in the reporters’ paraphrase, “Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people” and were leaders of the slave trade. Vanessa Wruble, a key organizer who is Jewish, told reporters Ms. Perez and Ms. Mallory later berated her: “You people hold all the wealth.” Ms. Wruble was pushed out of Women’s March Inc. by late January 2017.

    So were other early organizers, leaving Ms. Perez, Ms. Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Mari Lynn Foulger, who calls herself Bob Bland, as co-chairmen. The four were the toast of the “resistance,” drawing effusions from prominent Democrats. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called them “the suffragists of our time.” Nancy Pelosi praised them as “courageous.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s magazine lauded Ms. Sarsour as a “leader in the truest form of the word.” The ACLU is still a march sponsor, as are the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the American Federation of Teachers—never mind that three of the four co-chairmen admire Louis Farrakhan.

    The Nation of Islam leader makes an unlikely feminist. In one sermon, he ranted about “lazy women” who “don’t want to get in the damn kitchen and cook.” He is also infamous for his anti-Semitism, including the canard about Jews and the slave trade. In that regard at least, the three Women’s March leaders find in him a kindred spirit.

    Ms. Sarsour has asserted that Zionists can’t be feminists and that “some folks . . . always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.” She spoke at a 2015 rally a New York Times columnist described as a “pageant for Farrakhan” and has bragged that she has Nation of Islam bodyguards. Throughout 2016 Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez shared a steady stream of Farrakhan quotes and video clips on Instagram. In November 2016 Ms. Perez posted a picture of herself holding hands with Mr. Farrakhan. Ms. Sarsour commented: “God bless him.”

    In May 2017—four months after the first Women’s March—Ms. Mallory posted her own picture with Mr. Farrakhan, calling him the “GOAT,” an acronym for “greatest of all time.” Ms. Mallory attended a Farrakhan speech in February 2018 in which he denounced Jews as “children of the devil” and gave her a nice personal mention.

    Hoping to save the good name of the Women’s March, liberals pleaded with its leaders to condemn and abandon Mr. Farrakhan. They wouldn’t—not in 2017 or 2018, and not last week, when Ms. Mallory was questioned about it on “The View.”

    “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he has done in black communities,” Ms. Mallory said. “Just because you go into a space with someone does not mean you agree with everything they say.”

    The remaining supporters of the Women’s March—including the Democratic Party until last week—keep telling themselves they can compartmentalize the anti-Semitism and join, praise or even fund the march despite it. The implication is that it’s OK to be anti-Semitic as long you’re for the left. That was the message of this year’s Women’s March.

    1. i dont know what Farrakhan said on such occasion but i have heard him quote this from John 8:37-39;[38] 44-47,[39] where Jesus says, speaking to a group of Pharisees:

      “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father. They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did. … You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is you are not of God.”

      Now as a Muslim, Louis F does not believe that Jesus was the “Wholly man wholly God” as Trinitarian Christians do, but only a prophet. Nonetheless, I have heard him quote this passage in videos. Well, if Jews find that offensive, I guess i can understand that. If Christians find it offensive, well, maybe they don’t fully understand their own religion. I find that is often the case. Let me expand on that.

      Traditionally this passage was taken by antisemites to support notions of collective tribal guilt on the jews. But, even as traditional Christianity rejected that notion of guilt by blood ancestry– obviously welcoming Jewish converts all along— it still necessarily rejects the Jewish religion as obsolete. IE Christ did not abolish the Law of Moses, but he fulfilled it.

      Anyhow I thought i would add that because of course the wall street jounral won’t explain that nor will the SPLC who calls Catholics who write about such things “radicals” just for describing what is integral to the Christian faith.

      SPLC just lost a lawsuit to a Pakistani American guy they slandered and I hear they have two more defamation cases filed against them in the past month too. No surprise! they pick a lot of enemies.

      1. “Anyhow I thought i would add that because of course the wall street jounral won’t explain that nor will the SPLC who calls Catholics who write about such things “radicals” just for describing what is integral to the Christian faith.”

        Glad you piggy backed on this thread. I take issue often with the WSJ for publishing crap articles authored by Francis Rocca when he distorts much of Catholic news. Alas, WSJ is often driven towards Click / Bait as well

        Cheers!

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