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.