Rachel Maddow, the queen of collusion, is not backing down.
A day after Attorney General William P. Barr said special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III hadn’t found collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russian agents, Maddow — prime-time TV’s primary and most tenacious proponent of the conspiracy angle — still was not buying it.
Instead, Maddow moved on to two related questions: Did Trump obstruct justice? And did Barr let him get away with it?
“Whatever information [Barr] just received from Robert Mueller about the president’s behavior as it pertains to potential criminal obstruction of justice, Barr could have just passed that information on to [Congress] for them to decide what to do with it,” Maddow said on her MSNBC program Monday night. “But instead, somewhat inexplicably, he decided to take it upon himself to declare definitively, ‘Yeah, you know, I looked at all that stuff, and I can tell you there is no crime there, it’s fine.’ ”
She added: “Where did this come from? I mean, on what grounds are you saying that you have concluded there is no crime here?”
Maddow’s monologue suggests that she is unmoved by the many attacks on her for promoting a Russia conspiracy that, at least according to the attorney general, seems to have run aground. Her nightly deconstructions of the case against Trump have made her the signal figure of the anti-Trump left and have abetted her rise to the most popular figure in cable news.
Trump’s supporters savaged Maddow in the wake of the release of Barr’s four-page memo Sunday. The memo said Mueller’s 22-month investigation had not turned up evidence sufficient to conclude Trump and his associates were involved in a conspiracy with Russia to sway the 2016 election. It also said Mueller had not drawn a conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed efforts to investigate him — specifically it did not exonerate him.
Critics went after Maddow on the first part. “Today’s memo from AG Barr functionally renders every episode of @maddow for the last 22 months TOTAL FICTION,” tweeted conservative Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Sunday.
WikiLeaks, which released documents hacked by Russian operatives from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign, retweeted a comment reading, “In anything resembling a sane world, Rachel Maddow would be unloading her desk into a cardboard box today.”
Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Maddow’s chief rival, demanded she apologize for “lies.”
And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted a satirical New York Post graphic that placed Maddow at the top of an NCAA basketball-style bracket of pundits and commentators labeled “Mueller Madness.” Maddow’s entry was labeled “Nonstop collusion rants came to naught.”
In fact, Maddow went in early and often on the collusion angle, although she sometimes hedged her commentary.
In March 2017, for example, she commented, “If the worst is true, if the presidency is effectively a Russian op, right, if the American presidency right now is the product of collusion between the Russian intelligence services and an American campaign — I mean, that is so profoundly big. We not only need to stay focused on figuring it out, we need to start preparing for what the consequences are going to be if it proves to be true. We need to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with the worst revelations if they do come to light, if they are proved true.”
During one six-week period in 2017, the Intercept news site found that 53 percent of Maddow’s broadcasts focused on Russia, dwarfing discussion of any other issue.
Maddow’s relentless focus on the issue has turned her into MSNBC’s biggest attraction and the key to the network’s improving position against its long-dominant rival, Fox News. On most weeknights, Maddow challenges Hannity, her direct time-slot competitor and ideological opposite, for the largest audience in cable news and often on cable in general. And on many nights, she wins: During February, she attracted an average of 3.06 million viewers per night, slightly better than Hannity’s average (3.02 million) when each hosted their program, according to Nielsen figures.
More generally, the Mueller probe has been a major focus for MSNBC, helping it solidify its position ahead of CNN but behind Fox as the second-ranked cable-news network. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, MSNBC devoted more than 40 percent more time to the Mueller probe than CNN during 2018 and more than twice as much time as Fox.
MSNBC declined to comment about Maddow, referring a reporter to her program.
In her first show since Barr’s memo was released, Maddow barely mentioned collusion.
Instead, she focused skeptically on Barr’s brief summary of Mueller’s findings, questioning why the attorney general, a Trump appointee, had decided there was insufficient evidence to make an obstruction accusation against Trump despite Mueller’s reluctance to make the same determination.
As a parallel, she noted that Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation of President Richard Nixon, turned over his report to Congress in 1974, including damning grand-jury testimony against Nixon, without drawing conclusions about the president’s potential criminality.
She demanded the release of Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence, an idea the House endorsed unanimously earlier this month. She also raised 15 questions about Barr’s conduct, including the last, “Will Trump recognize Russia attacked our election?”
In all, it strongly suggested Maddow is not finished with Trump and the continuing investigations into his presidency. It also seemed to answer the sarcastic questions tweeted on Monday by Fox News host Geraldo Rivera in the wake of Barr’s memo: “What are [MSNBC host] @NicolleDWallace & @maddow going to do tonight? Apologize? Say never mind? And so it goes?”