Anyone who imagined that the Mueller report would arrive like Thor’s hammer crashing down, bringing an unqualified end to the Trump presidency has to be sorely disappointed. But they couldn’t have been surprised.
By the time Attorney General William Barr stepped to a microphone mid-morning on Thursday to announce his intention to make the Mueller report available to Congress and the public, the contents of the document were no longer a closely-held Washington secret. The report had become part of the well-spun narrative in Washington’s never-ending debate circles.
“There was in fact no collusion,” Barr said. He repeated the line three times during the half-hour news conference.
Trump’s Democratic critics weren’t blindsided. They had seen this outcome heading their way since last month, when Mueller finished his report and Barr sent out word that the president was free and clear of any charges related to the Russian investigation. But like the proverbial deer in the headlights of an oncoming car, Democrats were powerless to stop the administration’s version of events from slamming into them.
In today’s fractured and contentious political world, the specifics of any politically charged issue are secondary to convincing the public of a surrounding narrative. In this case, the Trump White House and his Justice Department captured the flag.
For nearly a month, since Mueller sent his report to the Justice Department on March 22, the White House and Barr have cooperatively sold a story of Trump’s innocence. Two days after getting the Mueller report, Barr released a four-page letter offering a capsulized version of what he called the “principal conclusions” of the document. In so doing, Barr laid a foundation for Trump to claim exoneration of all misdeeds.
Of course, Trump gleefully did just that, mounting a publicity tour to disparage the investigation as “ridiculous” and saying it had always been a “witch hunt” aimed at discrediting him. Even without knowing the specifics of the Mueller report, Trump aimed to disarm any damaging revelations by convincing his supporters to disregard whatever it might contain.
“I just won one of the greatest elections of all time in the history of this country,” Trump said to reporters following Mueller’s release of the report to Barr and the Justice Department. “And now I have somebody writing a report that never got a vote? It’s called the Mueller report. So explain that, because my voters don’t get it. And I don’t get it.”
Congressional Democrats had somewhat less of a bully pulpit to promote a counter-narrative. Not that they didn’t try, Democrats just couldn’t make their interpretation of the then-unseen Mueller report stick in the public’s mind.
In the days preceding the release of the redacted report, Democratic leaders complained that the Justice Department had assisted the White House in a spin-washing of the report to make the president look better than he would otherwise.
Now that the report is public, Trump is gambling that Barr’s story of the Mueller investigation will become the permanent account, fixed for all time as the historical record. Aided by the seemingly short attention span of news cycles and Trump’s ability to distract media coverage with fresh, daily calamities, the White House expects its mendacious machine will successfully refocus public attention elsewhere.
Don’t believe the hype, however, because there’s more to this story than first meets the eye. In the fullness of history, an accurate account of the Trump years of deceit will emerge like a slow-developing photograph. Give it time; the full picture will one day be obvious to all.
In an early morning statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) criticized Barr’s “partisan handling” of the report and pledged to continue looking into whether the administration is truly as innocent as it claimed in the early story it was selling.
Schumer and Pelosi called on Mueller to testify before Congress, saying the public needs to be sure about what’s in Mueller report and the way the Barr has handled it has “resulted in a crisis of confidence in his independence and impartiality.”
As the 400-page report — complete with Barr’s black-marked redactions — circulate across official Washington, Trump may gloat over having won the early news cycle narrative. But the story of his administration is long from being completed and the Justice Department has only released the first draft of a still-unfolding chronicle.