That the internal FBI documents that have generated this hubbub don’t provide anything close to an exoneration of Flynn is immaterial. This is another instance of a familiar pattern for Trump and his supporters: searching for a shred of new material on the Russia investigation, then insisting that this latest crumb is part of a trail that will eventually, somehow, lead to the vindication of Trump and his associates. What Trump once called “complete and total exoneration” is not just his framing of the result of Mueller’s investigation. It is also a prediction, the anticipated conclusion of coming revelations as the investigations into the Russia investigators continue.
As such, the frenzy of excitement over some very unexciting documents isn’t all that strange in and of itself. The strange thing is that, a full year after the release of the Mueller report, Trump and the media ecosystem around him are still following that bread-crumb trail toward an ever-elusive climactic moment—even in the midst of a pandemic that is killing more than 1,000 Americans every day. Trump’s supporters like to complain that Democrats are “obsessed” with the Russia probe, but in fact it’s the Trumpist right that just can’t seem to give the investigation up.
The ongoing fascination on the right with relitigating certain details of the Russia investigation—or, to put it less gently, rewriting the investigation’s history—has four major drivers. The first of these is the president himself. He remains obsessed with the subject, which comes up in speech after speech. A Trump rally is not complete if he hasn’t done an interpretive-dance version of the text messages between the former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, denounced the former FBI director James Comey, and spit out epithets implying an attempted coup or a bit of treason.
As long as the president remains fixated on the subject, the feedback loop between Trump and the right-wing media ensures that pro-Trump outlets will as well. A release of documents involving emails between Strzok and Page is kind of like a golden-oldies night for Fox News. Commentators find the menacing-sounding tidbits and read them breathlessly over and over, and the whole conspiracy comes rushing back to the faithful. For viewers, the coverage is enough to induce a more general sense that something must have been rotten in the deep state if people are talking about it all so much.
The third driver here is Attorney General Bill Barr, who has created something of an investigative infrastructure to ungird the breathlessness. The ongoing “review” of the Russia investigation by Barr’s handpicked investigator, Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, continually promises revelations that Barr himself is only too happy to hint at. The documents that drove last week’s mania were released by the U.S. attorney in Missouri, whom Barr had asked to review the Flynn case. So the odor of chronic “investigation” hangs over the entire matter, though nobody has yet produced evidence of misconduct in the handling of any of Mueller’s cases. Against this backdrop, the periodic publication of new information—however mundane—generates flare-ups in the right-wing media.