Republicans Prove They’re the World Champs of Working the Refs

Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

In a political context, “working the refs” usually refers to the press. It’s an effort by one side or the other to complain so loudly about unfair coverage that reporters start bending over backward to provide positive coverage instead.

But it doesn’t apply only to the press. The same tactics can be used to muffle, say, the FBI. The New York Times reports today that this is exactly what happened during the 2016 campaign, when James Comey went out of his way to publicly berate Hillary Clinton over her emails while deliberately staying mum about the agency’s investigation of Donald Trump:

Underpinning both cases was one political calculation: that Mrs. Clinton would win and Mr. Trump would lose. Agents feared being seen as withholding information or going too easy on her. And they worried that any overt actions against Mr. Trump’s campaign would only reinforce his claims that the election was being rigged against him….Agents had just closed the Clinton investigation, and they braced for months of Republican-led hearings over why she was not charged.

FBI agents were intimidated by the Republican-led investigations in Congress as well as by fear of Republican backlash over “rigging” the election against Trump. They were, apparently, not afraid of anything similar from Democrats.

Of course, working the refs still applies to the press too. The article finally acknowledges—19 months after the fact—what critics have been saying forever: that the Times blew it when they ran a piece eight days before the election headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”

In late October, in response to questions from The Times, law enforcement officials acknowledged the investigation but urged restraint. They said they had scrutinized some of Mr. Trump’s advisers but had found no proof of any involvement with Russian hacking. The resulting article, on Oct. 31, reflected that caution and said that agents had uncovered no “conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” The key fact of the article — that the F.B.I. had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — was published in the 10th paragraph….The article’s tone and headline…gave an air of finality to an investigation that was just beginning.

In the end, then, all the howling over Benghazi paid off, as did Trump’s endless bellyaching about the election being rigged. The result was just what Republicans wanted: The press played along eagerly with both Benghazi and Hillary’s emails, while the FBI cowered in a defensive crouch over fear of Republican attacks on them. There hasn’t been a more masterful game of working the refs in recent history.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate