The sharp backlash to the press conference held by Attorney General William Barr prior to the public release of the Mueller report is evidence of the serious peril of spinning a story.
Whether you agree or disagree with the findings of the special counsel’s investigation in Russian election meddling and potential collusion by the Trump campaign, it is hard to disagree that Barr’s summary of the report didn’t square with language in the report. That dissonance led to instantaneous criticism that Barr tried to spin the report’s findings in a positive light before anyone had a chance to read it.
The result was a day-long drip of media reports and blogs detailing the gap between Barr’s summary and Robert Mueller’s findings. Critics said Barr acted more like Donald Trump’s defense attorney than the US attorney general. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena to obtain the full, unredacted Mueller report. Calls for Trump’s impeachment grew louder.
Barr, who arranged his press conference before the official release of Mueller’s report, was clearly sensitive about appearances. When asked about spinning the substance of the report, Barr abruptly left his press conference podium, but disputed he did anything inappropriate. His performance led some congressional Democrats to demand Barr’s resignation.
Trump, who heralded Barr’s earlier 4-page summary as “total exoneration” and called Thursday a “good day” after Barr’s press conference, suddenly was under attack again. Commentators combed through the 448-page report, unearthing details and findings that Barr glossed over, such as the 10 incidents of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller investigated.
Barr implied Mueller’s investigation was unable to produce evidence of obstruction of justice. In the prologue to his report, Mueller said no charges were contemplated because of the Department of Justice’s policy that a sitting President cannot be indicted. Mueller said he was unable to dismiss Trump’s conduct as obstruction, in part based on testimony from the president’s own staff who were cajoled to lie and try to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation. Barr even came up with a novel defense of Trump’s conduct, saying his potential obstruction was the fruit of deep frustration.
The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “Now Americans have had a chance to read the Mueller team’s own words – and they are very different from Barr’s characterizations.”
What happens next is a political matter. What’s important in this context is a realization that spinning can have outsized impacts compared with relatively modest benefits. You may not only lose the argument, you may lose your reputation, too.
There is a basic flaw with spinning. You have to assume your audience isn’t bright and won’t catch on to your snow job. Even if your audience is uncritical, your critics won’t be so forgiving in exposing your gaslighting, which can generate negative media coverage and waves of social media disparagement.
Communicators who resort to spin ultimately come across as desperate. Flimflam replaces facts. Emotional appeals substitute for logic.
Spinning a story can burn bridges, as Barr has discovered. A respected attorney, Barr has been reduced in the eyes of some critics to Trump’s press agent. However, not a very good press agent.
If Barr would have consulted with a competent crisis communications counselor, he would have followed a different path in releasing Mueller’s report, starting with a different initial summary. A more forthcoming and nuanced summary may not have delighted Trump as much, but it would have more accurately foreshadowed the full report’s findings.
Barr did a decent job of explaining why redactions were needed, but his unartful rollout of the full redacted report was clumsy and misleading, sparking a congressional subpoena to see the whole report and the investigative materials behind it.
Holding a press conference 90 minutes before release of the report set up the scenario of the slow-drip discovery of awkward and embarrassing details. An alternative would have been to produce an annotated summary of the report, which could have been shared with the news media on an embargo basis an hour or two before public release. The annotated summary would have replaced the press conference and could have included Barr’s conclusions and his rationale. This approach may not have earned him White House employee of the month, but it would have served the public interest – and his own reputation – much better.
A press conference could have been held after release of the report to answer tough media questions and provide thoughtful answers. This would have prevented the release of the report from unwinding without any formal explanation or rebuttal. This approach would have avoided having Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stand rigidly behind Barr with the pained look of a prisoner of war on display.
Criticism was inevitable, but it would have been trained on the decision not to pursue criminal charges against Trump rather than on trying to brighten a dark chapter in American history through spin.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.