Everyone is going to be disappointed by the Mueller report
It won't change a thing, but it'll make both sides look bad
On Thursday, almost two years after the special counsel investigation headed by Robert Mueller was launched, the Department of Justice will publish Mueller's much-anticipated report — with redactions, of course, to protect classified material and raw grand-jury testimony. The report's publication promises an end to some of the divisions that engulfed the first half of Donald Trump's term as president and dominated the midterm elections.
At least, it promises an eventual end to them. At least for a few days, both parties will attempt to keep the fight alive by pumping hot takes into snippets of the report, hoping to salvage their own preferred narratives from the findings of the investigation. Does the report confirm that Mueller found enough malfeasance to impeach Trump? Does the report support Trump's total exoneration and make the original FBI counterintelligence probe look like a "witch hunt"?
Of course! It will do both at the same time, or so we will hear. Unfortunately for partisans, the report will likely disappoint both sides, and will bore everyone else. Both sides have hyped up the investigation to the point that Mueller's report can't possibly compete with the narratives.
Let's consider the Democrats' narratives first. For two years, members of the party's leadership have repeatedly assured voters that they have seen the evidence for collusion with their own eyes. As late as last week, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) still insisted that evidence of collusion existed, regardless of what Attorney General William Barr wrote in his summary. After Barr published his letter, Democrats doubled down on those allegations by adding accusations that Barr was covering up for his boss. House Judiciary chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has threatened to subpoena Mueller's full report without redactions, a move that would conflict with the law regarding grand jury testimony.
But if Democrats hope that Thursday's release of the redacted report will corroborate those allegations, they're almost certainly in for another round of disillusion and reduced credibility. A member of Mueller's team has worked with Barr and outgoing deputy AG Rod Rosenstein to properly redact the report. Both Mueller and Rosenstein have been targets of Trump's wrath and have been the subjects of Democratic bills to protect them from being fired by the president. Neither has publicly complained about Barr's letter or the redaction process, which both could have done easily any time after Barr released his summary.
In fact, Rosenstein went out of his way to endorse both last week in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "He's being as forthcoming as he can," Rosenstein said of Barr, and so this notion that he's trying to mislead people, I think is just completely bizarre." All Barr intended with the summary letter, Rosenstein explained, was to give the "top-line conclusions" in as timely a manner as possible.
If that's the case, and the broad strokes of Barr's letter are confirmed by the full report, then Democrats will still be left with an investigation that found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. That will expose their previous claims that collusion had already been established as entirely false and may alone be enough to take the wind out of the sails of investigations started by Schiff and Nadler. Even if they find questionable actions and discussions within the Mueller report, their earlier hyperbole raised expectations so high that anything less will be dismissed as hardly worth the bother.
Oddly enough, Trump and Republicans face a similar problem. Trump has spent the last two years calling the investigation a "witch hunt." The White House and many Republicans seized on the Barr letter to claim total exoneration for Trump. In that sense, the Barr letter almost certainly represents the high point of the probe for Trump and the GOP. Shorn of the details of the investigation, the conclusions play very well for the president, with the only small downside being Mueller's odd decision to not make a decision on obstruction of justice.
It's that choice that now stands to face the most intense scrutiny, and it seems likely the investigative report will have a pro-con list of actions and declarations that could arguably have justified charging the president. Even with the grand jury testimony redacted, Mueller's investigative report may include a lot of details on Trump campaign activities that may not rise to the level of criminality but were far less than virtuous.
That risk could also exist in the White House itself. NBC News heard from several unnamed administration officials who have tried petitioning Barr's office to make sure that they can't be identified in the published report. "They got asked questions and told the truth," one unnamed official told NBC, "and now they're worried the wrath will follow." Needless to say, if the "truth" entirely consisted of nothing-to-see-here reminiscences, no one would be worried about having their name attached to them. The likelihood is high that details from the report will keep the White House press office busy for the next several weeks parrying criticisms and that they will make Trump's "the Mueller report was great" victory lap look pretty silly.
Trump has also insisted that the FBI spied on him in the campaign. That's objectively true, as Barr noted in congressional testimony last week, as the investigation started as a counter-intelligence operation fueled by a surveillance warrant approved by a FISA court on Carter Page. That does not make it illegitimate, however, as Barr also noted. If the predicate for the warrant was valid, then the FBI's operation was proper. Trump may be banking on data from the Mueller report justifying accusations that the FBI did not have a valid predicate for the warrant or surveillance and that the operation was politically motivated. If Mueller included that in his report, then Trump might get a big win — but if Mueller concludes that the FBI did have a valid reason to surveil Page, it's going to burst that narrative bubble in a hurry.
At this point, however, one has to wonder how engaged voters remain on Russiagate. With all of the indictments now public and no charges for collusion or obstruction resulting from the investigation, it seems most people outside the Beltway will not care terribly much about parsing out the details of Mueller's report.
Thursday's release will be a letdown for both sides, which may just be what we need to finally move on from the special counsel probe as the center of our political attention.