The immediate aftermath of Attorney General William P. Barr’s letter summarizing the conclusions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report was not to spur partisans to entrench themselves for a political fight. The trenches are well worn on this, lived in for years, complex microstates with their own economies and institutions.
Instead, the first 24 hours after the letter's release looked like so many other 24-hour periods that preceded it. President Trump declared victory, but Trump has always declared victory. His opponents insisted that more is waiting in the shadows, but his opponents always insist that more is lurking. In this case, the former is more justified than the latter, but neither is new.
If the moment feels downright familiar, there’s probably a good reason. In broad strokes, the entire Mueller probe has remarkable echoes to the FBI’s last high-profile investigation: into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state.
In each case, the stakes of the investigation were significant. In the most recent case, Mueller's team was evaluating a president's possible coordination with a hostile foreign power. In Clinton's case, the FBI was looking at whether a Cabinet official had possibly shared classified information over an unauthorized system — a Cabinet official who, of course, was seeking the presidency.
In each case, the investigations were acknowledged publicly before they were completed, spurring ecosystems of theorizing and tea-leaf-reading. That powered an amplification of the significance of the already-significant eventual conclusions.
In each case, the release of those conclusions prompted similar reactions. Supporters of the exonerated party celebrated while still disparaging the investigation as unwarranted. Opponents of the exonerated railed against the failure of justice, disparaging the investigators as biased.
In each case, too, the final results appear to have relied, to some extent, on a determination that a case wasn’t winnable, not that nothing untoward occurred.
FBI Director James B. Comey, in his July 2016 announcement about the investigation into Clinton, declared that “although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
In his letter, Barr indicates that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein made a similar determination about possible obstruction of justice.
"In cataloguing the President's actions, many of which took place in public view,” Barr wrote, “the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent, each of which, under the Department's principles of federal prosecution guiding charging decisions, would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
In each case, we see an example of where the boundary between law and politics forms mountains. Comey and Barr each offered a legal determination about a political issue, perhaps, in each case, intentionally. In doing so, each left the political issues mostly unresolved, giving supporters and opponents of the accused something to hold up as evidence for their side.
The July 2016 conclusion of the email server investigation should also remind us that Barr’s letter isn’t necessarily the final word. In October 2016, Comey suddenly announced that the FBI was looking at another issue in the case, a proclamation that may have helped Trump advance to the presidency. It seems likely, too, that we’ll learn much more about Mueller’s report over the long term.
That Mueller didn’t indict anyone for crimes related to coordination with Russia’s interference effort and, ultimately, cleared the president’s campaign of having coordinated at all spawned an immediate backlash against a familiar foe: the media.
The media, many defenders of the president argued, had overblown or misrepresented allegations against him, betraying bias against Trump that blinded them to the real story. Those skeptical of mainstream media generally were similarly quick to offer criticism. The coverage of the story was the media’s acceptance of George W. Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq “times a million.”
You will remember a similar backlash against the media’s coverage of the Clinton email server, which has spawned its own shorthand encompassing both media criticism and criticism of Trump’s presidency: “but her emails.”
A better analogy for the media’s coverage of the Mueller investigation, though, might be the 2016 election itself. After Trump’s victory, one that was unexpected given polling in several states that he ended up narrowly winning, there was a broad criticism of how the media covered the election (“but her emails!”) and its surprise at Trump’s victory.
The surprise was justified, given the polling. But people rarely internalize nuance such as that there are 70-something-percent odds of an outcome occurring. It seemed possible that Clinton was going to win, and coverage reflected that, casting those who insisted that Trump would win — a claim that was often rooted largely in faith — as contrarians who were eventually vindicated.
Both then and now, part of the reason for the criticism is the conflation of opinion coverage with straight news reporting. One of the most visible and most viral aspects of the media ecosystem is cable-news punditry, which is often explicitly partisan. Given the sharp polarization in U.S. politics, there’s clearly demand for partisan commentary, for on-air fights in which one side rhetorically punches the other in the nose. That can overwhelm and color the reporting that spurs those fights.
In both 2016 and in the Mueller probe, there were certainly mistakes made in theme and on individual stories. But then, as now, much of the criticism stems first from frustration with the media and second from what the media did. Contrarianism isn't the same thing as skepticism.
So, yes, this moment feels familiar. That doesn’t mean the conclusion of the Mueller report is inconsequential or doesn’t influence the broader political fight. That the way in which it might influence that fight seems so predictable, though, is telling.