And so, when Attorney General William P. Barr releases the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, we should prepare for ensuing days of hyperbolic headlines, most of which will probably employ the most abused word in today’s media landscape: “bombshell.”
Merriam-Webster defines “bombshell” as something that is “stunning, amazing or devastating.” Type “Trump Russia bombshell” into your favorite search engine and entertain yourself with page after page of stories from the past two years describing so-called bombshells from an investigation that yielded no charges on the subject of Russian collusion.
Based on the fact that Mueller has recommended no additional indictments, it is almost certain that his full report will contain no real bombshells — not on collusion, not on obstruction of justice, not on anything that hasn’t already been reported. What it is much more likely to provide is a step-by-step debunking of favorite collusion theories, such as those recently repeated in melodramatic fashion by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) after Republicans asked him to step down as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Unfortunately, the absence of any actual bombshells in Mueller’s report will not prevent such a description by Democrats. That’s to be expected. Political parties are expected to play politics with issues for a few days before finally getting serious. Newsrooms shouldn’t play that game, but in the age of Trump, they often do.
A sterling example of the side effect of collusion fever and the lengths some will go to justify the use of “bombshell” was provided in January by Esquire, in an article by pundit Charles P. Pierce headlined, ”There is a bombshell of a word in the New York Times report on the Trump FBI investigation.” Pierce posited that the Times story in question — which was, to be sure, something of a real bombshell on the FBI’s troubling decision to open an investigation on the president — included a more cryptic bombshell, apparently discoverable only by the illuminati among us.
“The word is tucked into a sentence that, at first glance, seems to be a perfectly anodyne statement of the current fact,” Pierce wrote, before revealing that the secret word was “publicly,” which he discovered in this passage from the Times article: “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.” Aha!
Publicly, Pierce informed us, “is not a word chosen idly, not in a piece as judiciously written as this one.” No, “the implication of that ‘publicly’ is that investigators likely know far more than what appeared in the newspaper.” He also concluded that what was unfolding amounted to “the most astounding evidence of Oval Office criminality since the release of the ‘smoking gun’ tape in 1974.” Or not.
In the category of “be careful what you wish for,” Democrats are clamoring for Barr and Mueller to testify before Congress. Rather than providing more fodder for conspiracy theorists, both would be likely to systematically destroy whatever remnants of collusion and obstruction might remain. Despite efforts to portray Barr as Trump’s political pawn, he is not, and there will almost certainly be no daylight among Barr, Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein on the report’s conclusions.
Mueller’s report will be interesting. It will be enlightening. It will undoubtedly be comprehensive. What it almost certainly will not be is a bombshell.
But like jumping a dead car battery, there is one more brief charge to be had from the release of the Mueller report. So get ready, America. “Mueller report contains bombshells” is a headline already being written in newsrooms across the country. It is inconvenient indeed that reporters must await the bothersome details to write the copy that will follow, adjusted to fit the description.
If congressional Democrats and Trump’s biggest media critics ever acknowledge that they were wrong about Trump and Russia and overhyped it from the beginning, it would be that rare news event that finally justifies the use of the media’s most cliched and misapplied word.