Do journalists owe Donald Trump an apology?
So plainly obvious, in my mind, is the answer to the question I pose in that headline that I could end this column right there.
But I’ll expound.
First, the background: Most of Donald Trump’s presidency has been consumed by a special prosecutor investigating whether he or his campaign intentionally conspired with Russia to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential contest.
Last week, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, completed his probe. According to a summary of Mueller’s findings released by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Mueller determined there was no conspiracy between Russia and Trump. The special counsel left unanswered the question of whether Trump obstructed justice throughout the investigation, but Barr answered that question and said Trump did not obstruct justice.
While gleefully making the rounds of TV news talk shows the past week, the president’s advisers and other allies began demanding that not only Democrats in Congress but also the media apologize to the president for spreading what they called “false, slanderous accusations.”
The very fact that I know all this ought to be proof enough no apology is needed.
While newspapers all across America carried screaming, front-page headlines for the past two years about the latest revelations in the Russia investigation, those same newspapers printed even louder headlines announcing the completion and conclusions of Mueller’s probe.
That ought to tell anyone keeping an accurate score that journalists have been chasing news, not embarking on a smear campaign.
In fact, when Democrats howled that Barr already had his mind made up on the obstruction question because he’d said Trump was innocent just two days after Mueller turned in his report, it was CNN, Trump’s favorite punching bag, who was the first to deflate the Democrats’ accusations by reporting that Barr had known of Mueller’s conclusions for three weeks.
As for all those screaming headlines over the last two years, well, the U.S. Department of Justice and multiple congressional committees — including some led by members of the president’s own party — were investigating whether the sitting president of these United States and/or his associates and subordinates had colluded with a hostile foreign power to subvert the will of the American people.
Ignoring those facts would have been a gross abdication of duty for any journalist.
The stories I read were, for the most part, all very clear about what each clue said and didn’t say. Most every Washington Post and New York Times piece included some variation of the phrase, “no evidence has been publicly released proving the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.”
And it’s not like Mueller was on a wild goose chase. Dozens of people have been indicted and several have been convicted, and many of those convictions are related to people associated with the Trump campaign lying to investigators about their contacts with Russian people.
And, despite Mueller’s ultimate conclusions, there are still important questions that need to be answered for the American people: Why did those people lie about contacts with Russians? Was it a serious lie, like they said there was no meeting when they actually met to sell the passwords to voter databases? Or was it a banal kind of lie, like they said they met on the 3rd at 2 p.m. when it was actually 3 p.m. on the 2nd?
And how, exactly, did Mueller determine there was no collusion, in spite of all those lied-about meetings?
The questions raised by Mueller’s investigation included whether the leader of the free world, the man with his hands on the nuclear button, was either in cahoots with or compromised by an American enemy, and whether that leader was trying to hinder the investigation.
The American public had a right to know those questions were being asked, what clues were being discovered, and how members of Congress reacted to them for all the same reasons local trials are covered as they happen in county courts: so the public could judge for itself both whether the accused might be guilty and whether the accused was being treated fairly by the prosecutors.
The American public also had a right to know the answers to those questions, and they do, because newspapers and TV stations reported that, too.
There were missteps along the way, as there are bound to be when you’re trying to pull shreds of truth out of the locked safe that was Mueller’s office.
Probably the biggest misstep was BuzzFeed’s supposed scoop earlier this year that Trump had ordered his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the timeline of discussions over a proposed Trump tower in Moscow. Turns out, according to Cohen’s most recent testimony to Congress, that the attorney felt indirectly pressured, not directly ordered, to lie, because the president himself was publicly misstating the timeline.
I know that, by the way, because BuzzFeed reported on Cohen’s most recent testimony, despite the fact that the newer story contradicted the news site’s own earlier reporting (https://tinyurl.com/y2rc7ffj).
That’s what honest brokers do, and no one should have to apologize for doing honest work.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.