The Perverse Paradox of the Mueller Report

Donald Trump’s outrageous behavior described by the special counsel is, at this point, so deeply familiar that it has lost its power to outrage.

A document making similar claims about a different president would be eye-popping; this particular report, however, about this particular president, simply confirmed that Donald Trump is the same person the American public has known him to be all along. (Mark Wilson / Getty)

On Thursday morning, the report that had been compiled over the past 22 months by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was released, in a “lightly redacted” digital format, to the American public. By Thursday evening, cheeky reviews of the 448-page compendium (title: The Mueller Report; author: US GOVERNMENT) had popped up on Goodreads. One went like this: “The previous owner used a black highlighter on all the interesting bits and the main character has no redeeming qualities.” Another: “Slightly better than the SparkNotes edition released a few weeks ago.” Another: “The whole ‘we wouldn’t presume to say the president was guilty even if he was, but we will say that he’s definitely not not guilty’ thing is a bit of a cop-out. But it did have its moments.”

What did the president [redacted], and when did he [redacted]? The report, as those playfully disappointed assessments suggest, does not fully answer those questions. Instead—a situation that occasionally implies the work of Dons Quixote or DeLillo, rather than Robert Mueller—the report goes out of its way to acknowledge its own limitations. It does not contain the information that would have come from an interview with President Donald Trump, and interviewees lied to the Office of Special Counsel, the report notes, heaving a nearly audible sigh. These factors in combination helped to inform its conclusion: that “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges” in the matter of the 2016 Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. You could call that punting; you could call it restraint; or you could call it what Trump did on Thursday, as he publicly celebrated the report’s nonfindings: “It’s called no collusion, no obstruction.”

I spent much of Thursday watching cable news’s reaction to the report’s public release, which means mostly that, if I have somehow wronged you or your family in the past, you can now consider yourself thoroughly avenged. But it also means that I have passed several strange hours watching pundits engaged in that most modern of activities: grappling with revelations that manage to be at once outrageous and … thoroughly predictable. Shocked, but not surprised. It might be the defining emotion of the politics of 2019, and it lurks, among the shaded legalese, in the Mueller report. The person leading the American government lies, with regularity and impunity? It’s outrageous, but widely known. His agents do the same, on his behalf? Scandalous, and also a bit tedious. The White House, populated by several beneficiaries of nepotism and headed by someone whose mentor was a lawyer for the mob, has a dull tint of corruption? Shocking! But no longer surprising.

Trump is exceptionally skilled at separating people from their outrage, and one of his most common rhetorical tricks is his use of repetition as incantation. Whether it’s “U-S-A” or “Lock her up” or “No collusion, no obstruction,” his catchphrases have the effect not only of imposing his version of reality on audiences with blunt-force insistence, but also of lulling them into complacency. The refrains here function in the way refrains usually do: They become so familiar as to stop being questionable. And the Mueller report, so long in the making, has succumbed in its own way to that dynamic. A document making similar claims about a different president would be eye-popping; this particular report, however, about this particular president, simply confirmed that Donald Trump is the same person the American public—his supporters and his dissenters alike—has known him to be all along: venal, self-absorbed, unprepared. The report was metabolized accordingly. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes summed it up on Thursday evening, it “isn’t a bombshell so much as a compendium and confirmation of who the man is and how he conducts himself.”

Because of that—and because the special counsel’s investigation into the workings of the Trump campaign had led to indictments and convictions that were revealed in real time, rather than in the report—Mueller’s findings were treated, on Thursday, not only as a work of legal inquiry but also as a work of cultural mythology. (Or, as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, “This document now goes from being a legal document to a political document.”) Who would determine The Narrative™ that would shape the report’s afterlife as a work of living history?

Tucker Carlson, on his Thursday-evening show, engaged in his own attempt at mythmaking. The Fox News host took a gleefully desk-bound victory lap over the Mueller report, reveling in it not so much as a win for the president but as a defeat for other members of the media. “The Mueller report is probably the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House press corps in the history of this country,” Carlson said, with his signature blend of rage and ennui. The soliloquy that followed—which shifted from mockery of the “hysterical children” of the press to a lengthy suggestion that the Mueller report’s very existence has prevented the success of the Trump presidency—was illustrated with a series of caps-locked chyrons: LEFT STRUGGLES TO ACCEPT MUELLER REPORT FINDINGS; LEFT DEMANDS YOU STOP LISTENING TO AG BARR; OUR LEADERS WORSHIPPED MUELLER FOR YEARS. The longtime Fox anchor Brit Hume joined Carlson on the air: “Some of us, such as those of us here at Fox News, don’t have this collusion dog doo all over our shoes, and never did,” Hume said. “So we look at this and we think to ourselves, ‘Well, I guess we sort of sized that up properly.’”

Others were more succinct about it. Donald Trump Jr., one of the many White House surrogates who discussed the Mueller report on Thursday, put it like this via Twitter: “TOLD YA!!!” His father, for his part, posted a meme featuring an image of himself, his back turned to the viewer, his person shrouded by fog, the picture overlaid with words printed in Game of Thrones’ distinctive font. “Game Over,” it said, disregarding the fact that, on this particular show, what is dead may never die. “I’m having a good day,” the president said cheerfully, at a public appearance shortly after the report was released. And he was: The day began when Trump’s recently appointed attorney general, William Barr, convened a press conference at the Justice Department—one staged, absurdly, for reporters who had not yet read the report. Here was the attorney general, acting less as an objective arbiter of the law and more as a foot soldier in an army with a singular general. Barr painted a misleadingly rosy picture of the contents of the report itself, doing his own work to bend history to his, and his boss’s, will. The effort was so egregious that even Fox News took note of it: “The attorney general seemed almost to be acting the counsel for the defense,” the anchor Chris Wallace said.

But the president and his surrogates were not merely fighting for the narrative as a matter of history. They were also arguing for something in the present moment: the notion that the Mueller report and its conclusions are so insignificant—so thoroughly unsurprising—as to be laughable. Dog doo. TOLD YA!!! The Mueller report is commonly compared to the Starr Report, and to the report that was produced decades before by the Senate Watergate Committee. But the most apt analogue might be the Iran-Contra report, authored by the independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. That assessment, like its most recent successor, found that the personal conduct of the president (Ronald Reagan) in the Iran-Contra affair “fell well short of criminality which could be successfully prosecuted.” It also concluded, however, that the president had “created the conditions which made possible the crimes committed by others.” That document, too, navigated the tension between criminality in particular and wrongdoing in general; it, too, suggested both Americans’ great capacity for outrage and their equally great capacity for cynicism. (Some of the participants in the affair would receive presidential pardons; Reagan’s role in the scandal would be relegated, for the most part, to the haze of history.)

And on it goes. The shock mingling with the gah. Trump’s “on both sides” reaction to the horrors of Charlottesville. The arrest of Roger Stone. Jeff Sessions’s firing as attorney general. Last summer, The New York Times published the results of an extensive investigation into the accumulation of wealth that had helped Donald Trump first to become very rich, and then to star in a reality show whose theme song contains the lyrics “Money, money, money, money—MONEY,” and then to leverage the fame that resulted into a successful bid for the presidency of the United States. The Times’ report was a journalistic indictment of Watergate-level proportions. And yet it came and went over the course of little more than a day, barely putting a dent in the fickle American attention span. The problem, once again, wasn’t that the report wasn’t shocking—it was!—but rather that it wasn’t, in a deep sense, surprising. It confirmed a thing about Trump that was already part of the story about Trump. It revealed a particularly perverse kind of twist: The history of corruption convened a kind of impunity in the present. And the paradox was replicated, in its way, on Thursday, as Americans made sense of a report that contained so many shocks and so few true surprises. The matter wasn’t that the Mueller report was “fake news,” in that other Trumpian refrain. It was instead something both simpler and more menacing: It was old news.