The Irony of Mueller-Report Profiteering

Ebook promos and paperbacks of the special counsel’s report encapsulate the investigation’s theme: The government is for sale.

The Mueller-report ebook on a tablet screen
Ian Bogost / The Atlantic

When the Justice Department releases Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report this morning, it will be published on the Special Counsel’s Office website. By federal law, it will be placed in the public domain. That means you’ll be able to download the report for free to read on your computer or smartphone, to print out, or to email to your friends who don’t know where to find it.

That’s not stopping Barnes & Noble, the bookseller, from offering its own version of the Mueller report as a free download on its Nook tablet-and-app ebook platform. “We’ve received strong demand from our customers for this report,” Tim Mantel, the company’s chief merchandising officer said in a statement, “and want to make it as easy as possible for them to access it for free as soon as possible.”

Barnes & Noble is also selling a print edition of the report, with an introduction by the famed constitutional-law expert Alan Dershowitz. The paperback costs $9.20. If Dershowitz isn’t your bag, don’t worry, there will be other options. The Washington Post’s edition, for sale on Amazon for $10.50, promises “exclusive analysis” by the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning staff, a prospect that the book’s publisher, Scribner, claims will make the edition “the most complete and authoritative available.”

This isn’t anything new. The Post also added its analysis to an edition of Kenneth Starr’s report on the Bill Clinton investigation in 1998. But back then, many Americans weren’t yet online, and they certainly weren’t glued to the internet like today’s citizenry. Ebook readers such as Kindles and Nooks didn’t exist. If you were lucky enough to have a brand-new 56k modem, downloading a large PDF could have taken an hour.

But today your grandfather and your 6-year-old both know how to find the report on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. So when Barnes & Noble offers a free download of the report, it’s mostly taking advantage of the opportunity to market the Nook e-reader and app, a platform that many might have forgotten about entirely in light of the Amazon Kindle’s market share. Attention is a powerful force, and marketers know that huge barrels of the stuff will be focused on all things Mueller today. Might as well take advantage of it. (Barnes & Noble declined to comment on the record.)

That’s nothing new, either. With consumer attention fragmented across the internet’s shrapnel, advertising has become about hitting countless narrow targets, which are then aggregated into a profitable market. So when something really does become a national or global phenomenon, attracting huge swaths of the population’s collective eyeballs all at once, marketers chomp at the bit to take advantage.

Earlier this week, Game of Thrones offered one such rare example. Improbably, the fantasy epic became an international sensation, making it a lusty mark for promotions and tie-ins. There were Game of Thrones Oreos. Duolingo, the naggy language-learning app, offered a course in High Valyrian. Adidas released a set of Ultraboost sneakers themed after the great houses of Westeros. The Mueller report is Game of Thrones for the real world—minus the dragons, but with all the political intrigue. It’s no surprise brands want to take advantage of it.

And then, of course, there’s what comes next: Once the report is released, anyone is free to use it for any purpose, including commercial use. That means you can do whatever else you want with the report—no copyright restrictions prevent you from making motivational posters, screen-printing T-shirts, or embroidering baseball caps with excerpts. You could also market your own print-book edition of the report to compete with the one Barnes & Noble is selling.

But, of course, this isn’t a prestige TV show; it’s a years-long investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And unlike all the votive candles and Mueller Time T-shirts people made to stir up juju for Mueller indictments, this is the report itself we’re talking about. The end result of an investigation into the possible corruption of the highest U.S. office by a foreign power, cut apart and sold off for scrap.

The whole maneuver makes for a funny echo of the possible corruption the special counsel set out to investigate. Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. The former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

Even if the contents of the Mueller report don’t snare the president for conspiracy with a foreign power, Trump has profited personally from his presidency anyway. His 2017 travel ban excluded nations where he has investments. A $60,000 Kuwaiti consular party was moved to the Trump International Hotel, reportedly due to political pressure. He makes frequent use of his organization’s properties, including the Trump National Golf Club and Mar-a-Lago, spending millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. The initiation fees at Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000 after Trump’s election, signaling to some a direct intention to use the club as an ante for political access to the president.

Efforts like these are abnormal at best and unconstitutional at worst. But they also represent an extreme version of the same logic that lets Barnes & Noble hawk its e-reader app by means of the taxpayer-funded Mueller report. If the government produces raw materials that citizens can exploit for profit if they choose, then why not take advantage of the opportunity? The analogy is a false one, of course—commercializing public-domain documents is not the same as profiting from public office in violation of the emoluments clause. But the spirit of the free ebook download risks advancing the same end, one in which the government is not a civic organization that serves its people and asks nothing in return, but just another resource to mine for profit.