On Sunday, BuzzFeed reported that it has been tracking changes to the DOJ’s “US Attorneys’ Manual,” after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ordered a review of the document. BuzzFeed noted the removal of an entire subsection entitled “Need for Free Press and Public Trial.”
Prior to its removal, that section said that “careful weight must be given in each case to the constitutional requirements of a free press and public trials as well as the right of the people in a constitutional democracy to have access to information about the conduct of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and courts, consistent with the individual rights of the accused.”
In 1998, special prosecutor Ken Starr cited the removed section to defend briefing the press about his investigation into President Bill Clinton.
That subsection still appears on the “Our Media Mission” page for the Western District of Virginia, at least for now.
The DOJ removed the section, as well as others, after Rosenstein ordered the review in November. But the reporting of it comes at a notable time. Reporters Without Borders just released its study showing that the United States slipped to 45th worldwide on press freedom.
And earlier this year, Trump made the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of top press oppressors.
The White House has yet to give an explanation for this change to the manual. But Trump’s hostility toward the free press was evident before he even took office, and has escalated consistently since then. And under Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ is apparently unwilling to push back.
Some members of the press have performed admirably in resisting Trump’s efforts to attack and undermine them. But this weekend also saw the shameful spectacle of reporters defending Trump’s press secretary’s habitual dishonesty.
This shift by the Justice Department is sobering evidence that we need more of the former.