In November 2017, Vox published a story in which Glenn Thrush, then the White House correspondent for the New York Times, was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior towards female colleagues. Thrush, who’d been one of the most visible Times reporters in DC—he was frequently seen in the White House press briefing room, and so identifiable he was parodied by Saturday Night Live—was put on leave. Upon his return, he underwent unspecified “workplace training” and was reassigned to cover poverty and the social safety net. Over the past few months, though, Thrush has instead quietly been given a series of assignments that make it look more and more like he’s basically doing his old job. The whole thing raises some questions about what, precisely, the reassignment was meant to do, and whether or not the public is supposed to notice that it is evidently over.
Laura McGann, the Vox reporter who wrote about Thrush’s alleged sexual inappropriateness towards female colleagues, said in the story that Thrush had harassed her. In a follow-up story, we reported on the lengths that Thrush’s attorney went to to try to knock the Vox story down before it ever appeared. The Daily Beast later reported that the firm Thrush retained, Clare Locke, boasts about “killing stories,” has represented a series of high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct, and had even been involved in litigation against the Times themselves. (Full disclosure: Clare Locke sent me, my editors, and employers a legal letter recently, objecting to my ongoing reporting on a different story.)
The Times says they investigated Thrush’s conduct internally while he was on two months’ leave, though several of McGann’s sources later told me they were never contacted. When he returned and was reassigned, the paper’s executive editor Dean Baquet said in a statement that Thrush had “behaved in ways we do not condone,” but that while he had “acted offensively,” he didn’t deserve to be fired.
Baquet declined to answer most of the questions I asked in June about the Thrush investigation, his reassignment, and the corrective training he was asked to undergo, but did tell me that he’d chosen Thrush’s new beat on the social safety net himself. Thrush called it a “dream beat” in a Facebook post, and told The Wrap in a followup conversation that it was a return to the worthy issues he’d covered as a younger journalist:
“It’s a return to a subject area I’ve been covering since my late teens,” Thrush told TheWrap Wednesday. “As a young reporter in lower Manhattan, as an editor at City Limits and Child Welfare Watch, as a reporter on education, prisons and AIDS in Alabama and as a City Hall reporter for Newsday, where I covered homelessness, low-income housing and the city’s shortcomings in protecting kids in foster care.”
It’s unclear just what happened in the intervening months, but I first noticed that Thrush didn’t appear to be covering the social safety net anymore back in December, when a look at his author page showed a series of pieces, usually co-bylined with another reporter, about trade. Often, these looked rather directly like covering the Trump administration again, as in a story about Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA. (The president has not, as yet, actually made good on that threat. He probably forgot.)
In mid-December, I asked Thrush about it via email. He replied, “Covering for a colleague on maternity leave, then back to previous beat I’m told.” He referred further questions to a Times spokesperson, Eileen Murphy, who told me the same thing: “Glenn is covering trade for a reporter on maternity leave and will return to his previous beat when she returns.”
He didn’t, though. These days, Thrush is covering Congress, most recently filing a story about the Ilhan Omar controversy with another reporter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg. In late February, he was even bylined on a story that deals directly with sexual abuse, writing about Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta, who’s facing criticism over the plea deal he arranged for serial sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein while Acosta was serving as the U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Florida.
In an email, Murphy, the Times spokesperson, told me, “Glenn is covering the Hill, filling in for a colleague there who is on book leave.” She didn’t respond to a follow-up question; I had asked if there were concerns about putting Thrush directly on a story dealing with sexual abuse, given that he himself was reassigned for alleged sexual misconduct. Thrush also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Times has a recent history of reassigning reporters who publicly mess up to cover what appear to be, in their eyes, less “prestigious” beats. In July, national security reporter Ali Watkins was the subject of a series of explosive stories over her three-year relationship with James Wolfe, a top aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was arrested for leaking to reporters. (Wolfe ultimately pleaded guilty to lying during a federal leak investigation and was sentenced to two months in prison.) Watkins had her phone and email records seized by federal investigators, a fact she didn’t reveal to the Times for months, on the advice of her lawyers.
It was a career- and life-altering mistake of an entirely different type and Watkins, 26, was, unlike Thrush, the subject of an extremely long story by the Times themselves, outlining her misdeeds. (While the Times did cover the Thrush allegations in two brief stories, they didn’t re-report the allegations in the Vox article.) Like Thrush, however, Watkins was reassigned to a beat involving the social safety net: She was moved from D.C. to New York, where she now covers “courts and social services,” per her author page. (Watkins declined to comment when reached by Jezebel.)
By not clearly outlining why Thrush was being reassigned, or addressing whether the social safety net is meant to be a “punishment beat,” Times leadership is now in the comfortable position of being able to not really acknowledge Thrush’s subsequent beat changes, or explain what they mean. Murphy didn’t reply when I asked if Thrush will ever return to his previous beat, but he himself doesn’t seem to think so; he’s removed “social safety net” from his Twitter bio, and is now, once again, just a “DC Correspondent.”