Expectations for the Mueller Report Were Set Too High

The special counsel found plenty of damning evidence, but the end of his investigation still feels like an anticlimax.

Donald Trump speaks with the media on Sunday, after the Justice Department announced Mueller found no evidence of collusion
Donald Trump speaks with the media on Sunday, after the Justice Department announced Mueller found no evidence of collusion (Alex Brandon / AP)

For more than a year, many members of the American media treated Robert Mueller as if he were in the entertainment business, and the Mueller report as if it were the season finale of U.S. politics, one that would deliver a shocking twist.

Although more responsible journalists repeatedly warned that a big-bang showpiece was unlikely—that just isn’t Mueller’s style—the expectations were set impossibly high. Anything short of Mueller leading an FBI raid on the White House and walking out with multiple members of the Trump clan in chains would have felt like an anticlimax. That is why Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s report, which neither Congress nor the public has seen in full, seems to many like a victory for the president and his allies.

But it isn’t. The gap between where the expectations were set and the conclusions described in the Barr summary has led pundits astray. Information long in the public domain as well as in the summary is actually incredibly damning, and would in normal times be more than enough to push for impeachment.

It’s best to start at the beginning—why a special counsel was necessary at all. Mueller’s hiring followed Trump’s abrupt firing of James Comey as FBI director, which Donald Trump publicly admitted was motivated in part by “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” That sure sounds like obstruction of justice.

With Comey out of the picture, Mueller was assigned to continue the investigation into Russian electoral interference—not “collusion” in particular, because that is not a legal term. His remit also gave him the power to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” including obstruction of justice. Given the circumstances of Mueller’s hiring, obstruction should have been seen as just as significant as the vague “collusion” allegations that dominated the headlines.

Per Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report, the special counsel ultimately ducked the question of whether the president obstructed justice. But, even in Barr’s telling, the report clearly did not exonerate the president on this point. That’s worth underscoring: The president may well have obstructed justice. Mueller did not offer a conclusion one way or the other.

And while, according to Barr, Mueller did not find definitive evidence of “collusion,” let’s keep in mind that his investigation produced indictments against 34 individuals and three entities on nearly 200 separate criminal charges. He put Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s campaign during the crucial summer months of 2016, in prison.

Even without Mueller’s considerable efforts, the world would know three things. First, the president’s son met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer to discuss receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton. Second, that same son was in Twitter direct-message contact with WikiLeaks during the period the site was publishing Clinton campaign emails. Third, Trump called for Russia to find and publish Clinton’s emails (the famous “Russia, if you’re listening …” comment).

There’s a lot of smoke here, even if Mueller didn’t find a fire. Perhaps there’s no “collusion,” but there’s plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign held itself to no known ethical standard.

Why, then, does the upshot of the Mueller investigation feel like a victory for Trump? Because of a structural weakness in the media. Reporters are often quite good at handling revelations, or of making a big deal of hidden conspiracies. When almost everything is out in the open, however, as it was here, it’s hard to work out what to say. Important but predictable, generally speaking, is not the U.S. media’s strong suit.

Elected Democrats share some of the blame, too. By using Mueller as a reason not to discuss action against the president—“Let’s wait for what he says” was their mantra—they reinforced the impression that Mueller would be the person to give the definitive verdict on the Trump presidency. As is now crystal clear, that was not Mueller’s view of his role or his investigation.

Mueller did his part: He secured convictions and submitted his report to the attorney general. Between what he uncovered and what was clear all along, there’s plenty of fodder for congressional investigation and public outrage.