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Opinion Republican lawmaker complains to Mueller about lack of Fox News in his report

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R.-Ariz.) counts the number of times Robert S. Mueller III's report references The Washington Post, New York Times and Fox News. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) should send a letter to Fox News saying the following: Do more investigative journalism. Break more news.

That is the most logical recourse in light of her questioning of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Wednesday in another one of those congressional super-hearings. True to both his own preference and Justice Department instructions, Mueller — at least in his testimony Wednesday morning before the House Judiciary Committee — stuck closely to the text of his two-volume report, which was released in April in redacted form. “I direct you to the report” was Mueller’s mantra for these proceedings.

Got a question about the Mueller testimony? Submit a question for Harry Litman’s Twitter chat.

But the report is the problem, Lesko suggested in her five allotted minutes of questioning. Here’s a look at the exchange:

LESKO: Mr. Mueller, rather than purely relying on the evidence provided by witnesses and documents, I think you relied a lot on media. I’d like to know how many times you cited the Washington Post in your report.
MUELLER: How many times I what?
LESKO: Cited the Washington Post in your report.
MUELLER: I do not have knowledge of that figure . . . . I don’t have knowledge of that figure.
LESKO: I counted about 60 times. How many times did you cite the New York Times?
MUELLER: Again, I have no idea.
LESKO: I counted about 75 times. How many times did you cite Fox News?
MUELLER: As with the other two, I have no idea.
LESKO: About 25 times. I’ve got to say, it looks like Vol. II is mostly regurgitated press stories. Honestly, there’s almost nothing in Vol. II that I couldn’t already hear or know simply by having a $50 cable news subscription. However, your investigation cost the American taxpayers $25 million.
Mr. Mueller, you cited media reports nearly 200 times in your report, then in a footnote, a small footnote, No. 7, page 15 of Vol 11, you wrote, I quote: “This section summarizes and cites various news stories not for the truth of the information contained in the stories, but rather to place candidate Trump’s response to those stories in context.” Since nobody but lawyers reads footnotes, are you concerned that the American public took the embedded news stories at face value?

At that point, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) cut off the questioning, insisting that the hearing was running short on time.

The Mueller hearings revealed Sean Hannity's outsized influence on Trump is also driving GOP members of Congress. Erik Wemple warns against this. (Video: Erik Wemple/The Washington Post)

Lesko was wrong: The non-lawyer Erik Wemple Blog read that footnote and addressed it in a two-part evaluation of the Mueller report’s implications for the media. It’s true: Fox News was cited far less than either the New York Times or The Post. From the first installment of this blog’s Mueller blowout:

The Mueller report credits not a single piece of investigative work among the 16 Fox News and Fox Business Network pieces cited in the report’s footnotes. Many of the hits are interviews conducted by the hosts of “Fox & Friends” and by Sean Hannity, perhaps the country’s foremost cheerleader for Trump. Several others stem from interviews with Trump and then-incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus by Chris Wallace, the no-nonsense host of “Fox News Sunday,” during the presidential transition.

Underlying Lesko’s line of questioning is the idea that, somehow, an investigative document should cite Fox News in equal proportion to The Post and/or the New York Times. But the problem with any such premise is that Fox News doesn’t do investigative journalism in the manner of major U.S. newspapers. It reads the news broken by other outlets, and then feasts on it. (Worth noting: The report made clear that other TV networks besides Fox didn’t measure up to newspapers’ investigative outputs either.)

And as for the footnote language cited by Lesko: Vol. II is indeed a tour through Trump’s various freak-outs as the Mueller team went about its work. For instance: In June 2017, The Post reported that Mueller and his team were looking into whether Trump had obstructed justice. A heading on the Mueller report itself makes clear why this report was germane to the investigation: “The Press Reports that the President is Being Investigated for Obstruction of Justice and the President Directs the White House Counsel to Have the Special Counsel Removed.”

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See how that works, Rep. Lesko? News organizations didn’t sit around waiting for Mueller to finish his business. They conducted a parallel investigation into Trump’s actions, an investigation that had already surfaced many, though not all, of the revelations in the Mueller report. The role of Fox News was primarily to toss cold water on the significance of other outlets’ scoops. Such is not the sort of work that earns citations in a special counsel’s report.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Mueller all but confirmed that Trump committed obstruction of justice

Harry Litman: Mueller’s greatest failing is Trump’s greatest triumph

The Post’s View: It’s not Mueller’s job to remain silent for Trump’s comfort

Greg Sargent: Trump’s Article II comments illustrate the stakes at the Mueller hearing

Harry Litman: Five takeaways from Mueller’s first round of testimony