The Straight Story

Part spy thriller, part Game of Thrones with footnotes: A book critic reviews the Mueller report as literature.

Display of bound copies of the Mueller report at the Harvard Book Store.
Display of bound copies of the Mueller report at the Harvard Book Store. Harvard Book Store

Some passages in the Mueller report—namely, the president’s outburst, “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked!” upon learning of the special counsel’s appointment—have within the span of a few days attained an iconic status approaching the scene in which Anna Karenina throws herself under the train. My personal favorite is the moment when White House counsel Don McGahn snapped at the president after being berated by Trump for refusing to fire Mueller, then for refusing to lie to the Department of Justice about Trump ordering him to do so, and then finally for taking notes on his conversations with the president. “I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Trump complained. McGahn’s retort: He takes notes because he, at least, is “a real lawyer.”

Palace intrigues make for addictive storytelling, as the popularity of Game of Thrones illustrates, and reading the report as a work of literature makes clear that the narrator of the document, whoever that may be, relishes a little bit of that now and then. McGahn’s comeback is not actually material to the investigation, but it does represent the closest thing the report has to a statement of theme. It, too, is the work of real lawyers, arrayed against the sleazy fixers and hucksters of the Trump administration, people so clueless and slipshod that half the time they don’t know when they’re engaging in potentially illegal behavior. (Whether those same actions are ethical or not might as well be a question asked by an alien species from another planet.)

The report has been covered exhaustively. One critic has deemed the report the best nonfiction book so far on the Trump administration, pointing to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ability, unlike other writers, to subpoena witnesses and enforce their truthfulness. But how does it read? Given that journalists and experts are willing to read it for you, does the report itself—available soon on Amazon and as a print-on-demand product at bookstores—reward the time it takes to plow through almost 500 pages of densely footnoted findings?

Yes and no, depending on your ability to switch literary gears. The first volume, devoted to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, begins, like any good political thriller, with a bang. Multiple Russian spy organizations fan out across the internet and America itself, manipulating social media platforms, fomenting partisan acrimony, hacking into servers, leaking documents, organizing Trump rallies, and engaging in other devious efforts to promote their candidate of choice (and to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders).

A thriller is only as good as its villain, and the bad guys here have an undeniable panache. Take “Guccifer 2.0,” a persona employed by Russian operatives to funnel documents taken from Democratic National Committee servers to WikiLeaks. The name, originally devised by Romanian hacker Marcel Lazăr Lehel, is a portmanteau meant to convey “the style of Gucci and the light of Lucifer,” in Lehel’s words, a vertiginous combination of Eurotrash fashion, comic-book grandiosity, and biblical chops (Lucifer was identified with the morning star in Isaiah 14:12). In turn, the Russian military intelligence agency known by the Bondian acronym of GRU, attempting to pose as a lone crusader, stole the name from Lehel, who was recently extradited from Romania to serve time in a U.S. prison. It succeeded in aggravating both the victims of its infiltrations and the original Guccifer. This volume of the report is by far the more heavily redacted of the two, the black boxes often labeled with the tantalizing explanation “Technique of Investigation,” intensifying its conspiratorial frisson. (Spy novelists with a metatextual bent should take note.)

But GRU and its fellow misinformation agency, the Internet Research Agency, are faceless entities; most thrillers aim to present evil in the form of a person. The closest thing the Mueller report has to supervillain material is Julian Assange, whose bogus maverick posturing, suave mendacity, and comprehensive lack of human decency is spectacularly showcased in these pages. While the “narrator” of the report (more on that later) generally aims for and achieves an impartial tone, the passages in which Assange is described as concealing his Russian sources by capitalizing on the 2016 murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich conveys an air of loathing that’s as impossible to miss as it is difficult to pinpoint in quotation.

Things quiet down after this roaring start, alas, as the report moves toward documenting evidence that the Trump campaign might have conspired with Russian persons and entities to obtain and release “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. For pages and pages, people attempt to set up meetings at Westin hotels with individuals somewhat more influential than themselves—only to get blown off when the other parties decide they’re small potatoes. The report’s account of their activities constitutes what we in the book-reviewing trade like to refer to as a longueur. Even the infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower comes across as something of an anticlimax. Shiny-suited chancer Paul Manafort joined Donald Trump Jr., his rival in mediocrity, and a reluctant Jared Kushner (who emailed two of his own staffers halfway through, requesting that they “call him to give him an excuse to leave”) in a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had promised dirt on Clinton. The meeting was a bait and switch, the alleged dirt unusable, and the Russians’ actual agenda was to lobby Trump’s inner circle about sanctions. This might have violated campaign financing laws, the report observes, if the proffered information had been worth anything, but it wasn’t.

All this is a bit anticlimactic after the whirlwind of ingenious cybercrimes that kicks off Volume I. Figures like Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page, for all their wealth, come across as Willy Lomans of the business-class lounge, scrabbling after their own petty interests. Of course, self-enrichment is the entire motivation of the Trump presidency, and so these underlings are perfectly consistent with the leader they hitched their wagons to. This part of the report may work as a damning portrait of globalist Babbitry, but as characters these men are dull, and Volume I ends with a whimper of indictments and low-security prison terms.

“I feel like a character in a novel,” Bill Clinton said in the heat of the Monica Lewinsky scandal; specifically, he meant the imprisoned revolutionary at the center of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The Trump investigations lack the moral grandeur and irony of that story, in which the hero is persecuted and condemned by the very party he helped to found. Volume II of the Mueller report, a compendium of evidence that the president attempted to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and also the special counsel’s investigation itself, has the earmarks of a dramatic work instead: King Lear is the one most often cited by observers, but The Madness of King George seems equally apropos.

The characters are cooped up together in the White House like crabs in a bucket. They are forced to humor and manipulate their demented old king, who has a schoolchild’s conception of his own job: He thinks he’s now the boss of the whole world and tantrums every time he’s thwarted. He keeps hounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “unrecuse” himself from overseeing the FBI investigation no matter how many times Sessions explains that he has no power to reverse that decision. He rants on and on about a golf course fee dispute that he insists demonstrates Mueller has a conflict of interest, despite the fact that this alleged conflict had already been considered by the DOJ and deemed “meritless.”

He apparently spent the first few months of his presidency randomly calling up officials in the intelligence community, asking them either to stop the investigation or to make public statements confirming that he personally was not a subject of it. One of these officials describes his conversation with the president as “the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service.” If, like me, you suspect that Trump was at most barely aware that members of his campaign were playing footsie with the Russians, all this smacks of a petulant form of outraged disbelief. After all the crap he’d gotten away with in his life, Trump just couldn’t believe he was being nailed for something he hadn’t done.

My Slate colleague Mary Wilson, assessing the literary merits of the report, declared, “I would make a case for ‘less Tolstoy, more Balzac’—tell me what you just told me, don’t make me read between the lines.” That’s what the Mueller report would do if it really were the best nonfiction book on the Trump administration: not just present the information it gathered, but provide enough context and analysis to convey a point of view on what it all means. Instead, the report refrains from drawing almost any conclusion, to the frustration, surely, of many of its readers. But this is an instance of perfect consonance between style and theme: The meticulous scruples of a “real lawyer” is what keeps the report from pitching headfirst into the abyss of Trumpism and the shrieking maelstrom that Guccifer 2.0 and his comrades have made of American political discourse. It’s less invigorating than a report voicing decisive judgments about the events it describes, but you get the sense that sticking to that Tolstoyan detachment is the only thing keeping the authors sane.

Is it frivolous to evaluate the Mueller report’s entertainment value? Isn’t the legitimacy of the Trump administration enabling the cruelest abuses at the nation’s borders and threatening our democratic institutions? It is, but I’d argue that it makes sense to examine everything pertaining to the Trump administration in this light because Trump doesn’t operate under an ethos of governance, or even under an ethos of business. The only thing he is good at is entertainment; it’s what got him elected and has allowed him to commandeer the news cycle for four years.

The qualities of his tenure that have destabilized and degraded our government are the same qualities that make them entertaining after the fashion of reality TV: escalating conflict, ruthless maneuvering, larger-than-life-characters, knee-jerk stereotypes, dramatic reversals. Just try to pay attention to anything else! Like the fictional movie that gives David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest its title, Trump’s shitshow seems capable of hypnotizing all of us into watching it so avidly that we waste away staring at our screens. The Mueller report, Olympian and meticulous, feels like an attempt to wrest back our government on behalf not just of real lawyers but of reality itself.