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

Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA

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.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend


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.


Support our journalism

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


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.