Trump’s critics saw the enormous amount of incriminating material already in the public domain before the report landed and assumed that much more would come out. The president seems to have shared that worry. When he learned of Mueller’s appointment, Trump exclaimed, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.” If reporters had done a less good job along the way, would he have been right?
One of the lessons of the Mueller investigation is that no matter how many times the president shouted about “fake news,” the majority of the actual reporting on the case was solid and accurate. (Conversely, Zack Beauchamp notes that many of the highest-profile stories critical of the dominant narrative turned out to be wrong.)
But the press certainly did inflate expectations. BuzzFeed and others spread salacious rumors from the Steele dossier, talking heads on cable news tried to fill space by imagining the next revelation, journalists shared their wilder speculations on Twitter, and the “resistance media” made an industry out of connecting the dots.
Read: The resistance media weren’t ready for this
Some of those dots turned out not to connect to much of anything, though. Of the many theories not borne out by the report, the biggest was criminal coordination between the Trump team and the Kremlin. Mueller found no criminal conduct, though he hardly cleared anyone of “collusion”: He noted that there were “multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government,” including “Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign,” some of which were welcomed.
Mueller also dismissed as tangential the role of Carter Page, who served as a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Thanks to his extensive history in Russia, and because the FBI had previously warned Page that Russian intelligence was trying to recruit him, he became an object of immense curiosity—which only grew after Page delivered confusing and contradictory testimony to Congress. Mueller wrote, however, that while Page’s contacts with Russians may have been eccentric, “the investigation did not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”
Another focus of the resistance media was a change made to the GOP platform at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Language about “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine to combat Russian aggression was stripped out. Could this have been a favor to the Kremlin, some sort of quid pro quo? Apparently not. According to Mueller, it appears that J. D. Gordon, a foreign-policy adviser to Trump, was going it alone when he deleted the phrase.
Read: Imagining Trump’s America without Robert Mueller
There were in fact significant connections between Russia and Trump officials. The resistance media did not dream up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a Kremlin-connected lawyer and campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner. Mueller decided not to press charges because he felt it would be difficult to prove that the opposition research promised by the lawyer was a “thing of value” under campaign-finance law, and because he concluded that Trump Jr. wasn’t aware that he might have been breaking any law. (The University of California at Irvine law professor Rick Hasen argues that Mueller erred in this judgment.)