NEW YORK (AP) — The release of a dense, 400-page report on the results of a two-year investigation is an event uniquely unsuited to today’s minute-by-minute news cycles.
That was the challenge faced Thursday by journalists who finally got to see special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings on the Russia investigation, after another attempt by President Donald Trump and his administration to give their version of what it said.
Reporters scrambled through stacks of paper with blacked-out portions to glean highlights. Cameras peeked over shoulders to display Mueller’s words on computer screens. Anchors continually asked colleagues, “What have you found?” or “What jumps out at you?”
“We’re all going to law school today,” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said.
Mueller’s report was released shortly after 11 a.m., following Attorney General William Barr’s more detailed verbal summary of the written summary he delivered on March 24. That succeeded in setting a Trump-friendly narrative of the investigation. Barr repeated Thursday that Mueller had found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians trying to influence the 2016 election, an assessment broadcast live on broadcast and cable news networks.
In a short news conference that followed, Barr three times batted away questions about whether he was doing Trump’s bidding in summarizing Mueller’s words before the public could see them.
“I was struck with how much he put his own credibility on the line, it seemed, in order to spin for the press and give the president basically what amounts to two hours of better press,” ABC News’ Matthew Dowd said.
NBC analyst Chuck Rosenberg said Barr “went too far into the tank” for Trump.
“Book reviews are interesting,” he said. “But the book is always more telling.”
For his part, Trump followed with a “Game of Thrones”-inspired tweet proclaiming “Game Over.”
Once the report was released, the networks largely ignored — or showed in delayed, truncated form — a Trump White House appearance where he commented on the findings.
Journalists were warned in advance to slow down and take time to digest the news before talking about it or interviewing opinionated guests. But that ignores a hyper-competitive world with airtime and web pages to fill and consumers who are never more than a click away from rivals. A smiling Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, was on Fox News Channel within a half hour of the report’s release.
Certain highlights were emphasized, like the president’s profanity when he learned of Mueller’s appointment, and former White House counsel Don McGahn’s refusal to order Mueller’s firing.
The report’s sheer length made varied conclusions inevitable, even within the same news organization.
“The way Barr described what he called the top line or bottom line conclusions of the Mueller investigation tracks very closely with what I’ve been able to read,” NBC News’ Pete Williams said. “His summary of what the investigation says is pretty much on point.”
Later, Brian Williams asked an MSNBC guest, former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, “What report do you think the attorney general was describing this morning?”
“Not the one that I’m reading now,” she replied.
Television networks used chyrons to flag findings: “Trump to Sessions Upon Recusal: ‘You Were Supposed to Protect Me'” on MSNBC. “Trump Engaged in Effort to Encourage Witnesses not to Cooperate with Investigation” on Fox News.
On YouTube, Vice News showed a reporter, sitting at a table with a framed picture of Mueller under a potted plant, reading the document.
The Washington Post led its first post-release story by describing how Mueller’s investigators “struggled with both the legal implications of investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice, and the motives behind a range of his most alarming actions, from seeking the ouster of former officials to ordering a memo that would clear his name.”
On its web site, The New York Times kept up a running series of brief dispatches from individual reporters on highlights of the report.
The Associated Press did both, sending out individual alerts of report findings and leading its first post-release story with the news of McGahn’s refusal to get Mueller fired.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier mused about what point Mueller had concluded that there was no collusion with Russia. If that news had gotten out earlier, would it have changed the results of the 2018 midterm elections?
“You’ve had for 23 months the sword of Damocles hanging over the Trump campaign and the Trump administration that is eating away at the body politic,” he said.
Several reporters noted how the report outlined the president’s ease at lying or directing his underlings not to tell the truth. “Stories that we were told were not true, Robert Mueller said were true,” said ABC’s Cecilia Vega. “It’s right here, in black and white.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper noted that “it’s not a crime to the lie to the public. It’s not a crime to lie to reporters.”
“Which is lucky for the White House,” Anderson Cooper replied, “because they do it all the time.”