Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report gave a damning overall portrait of the president, and yet that portrait surprised no one. Because the public has been treated to so much evidence of Donald Trump’s dishonesty and hectic leadership, the shock has worn off. Finding out suddenly that one’s president is crooked is jarring; finding out slowly is numbing.
Even Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, who broke many of the stories that Mueller eventually confirmed, mused, “For all of the efforts by POTUS and some of his advisors/aides to undermine or discredit the real-time reporting from multiple outlets, the political reality is it helped take away a lot of the shock value for the public, which has heard much of what’s in the report before.”
This observation doesn’t argue against real-time reporting, of course. Start claiming that journalists should withhold information because of future political consequences and you end up in dangerous territory, not least because future political consequences are so hard to predict. But it isn’t hard to imagine that if Mueller’s revelations had all been fresh, they might have, as the saying goes, shaken the political world.
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.
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.
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.)
Nor did anyone make up the communication, via Roger Stone, between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which released emails hacked from Democrats by Russian government units. Also damning: Manafort shared internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI believes is connected to Russian intelligence, with the understanding that it would be passed along.
Of course, most of Manafort’s questionable behavior has long been known. Same goes for the evidence that Trump committed obstruction of justice; although Mueller felt he could not come to a conclusion on that matter, it’s clear that Trump went to great lengths to try to stop or impede Mueller’s investigation.
Just because the evidence of wrongdoing is old news doesn’t mean Trump should be able to claim vindication. But old news doesn’t sting.