Because it is guaranteed to be incomplete, the Mueller report—the version released by William Barr, anyway—is going to fail in at least one respect: It will not resolve deep public uncertainty about the extent and scope of Donald Trump’s malfeasance. Barr’s credibility is low, so the redacted report will be subject to endless forensic analysis as people try to reconstruct what’s missing and why. This is not good. Americans should not be in the position of having to fill in the gaps with reasoned inferences at best and conspiracy-minded guesses at worst. It’s beneath everyone’s dignity. But here we are, and if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that Americans have few tools for dealing with an administration that relies so wholly on lying—publicly, chronically, without shame, and with no intention of correcting misinformation. We fixate instead on secrets because secrets are how government malpractice has been accounted for in the past: Investigations are done, sins are exposed, and consequences are meted out. What the Mueller report captures is both how sticky and how futile this historical approach is in the present climate. We’ve become too accustomed to using secrecy as an indicator of scandal. It’s often a decent approximation, and we need shortcuts like that now more than ever in order to stay afloat in the downpour of news. But this is one of those shortcuts that needs to be deprecated because its basic premises no longer apply. Trump’s wrongdoing is not private. It is, as my colleague Will Saletan has pointed out, quite public. Even the full unredacted report will probably do little but confirm much that we already know. Dealing with Trump means dealing with that fact—seeking an exposé is kind of a weird response to an emperor with no clothes.
That this next iteration of the Mueller report won’t settle anything because it can’t—almost by definition—doesn’t mean the full version won’t eventually come out. It almost certainly will, at some point, and it will be good to know what it says. The trouble is that too many others have already spoken for it, in ways that can’t be completely erased. This next wave of news about the report’s contents may even end up as muddy as the first—and yet what we remember is how Barr’s summary was characterized by Republicans as “incredibly clear” (Sarah Sanders), “firm, without equivocation” (Lindsey Graham), and “without a shadow of a doubt” (Kevin McCarthy). Hobbled by redactions, the report will achieve exactly the kind of epistemological confusion this administration generates and coasts on, the kind where Trump can be WikiLeaks’ biggest booster and then claim to know “nothing” about them—or where Barr’s summary can be declared definitive by partisans and much of the mainstream media until Mueller’s team breaks its legendary silence.
We’re at the “squids squirting ink” stage of the American polity. And because media outlets must report on the Mueller report—whatever there is, even if it’s redacted and inconclusive—there’s a strong chance that the opacity and confusion will be amplified. This, for defenders of the president, is a net positive. A news cycle dominated by a message of “exoneration” that requires correction later is, after all, the kind of move post-truthers like Newt Gingrich love: It makes the pursuit of reality seem not worth attempting. The best possible result for Republican leaders is for the public to resign itself to a permanent bothsiderism, in which each position is equally bad and the media is perennially and magnificently to blame.
Against this backdrop, it’s both ironic and understandable that those of us still holding on to hope for truth are so obsessed with papers.
Secret papers, specifically. Which the public equates with the real stuff, the substance, even when evidence of wrongdoing is there in plain sight.
The weird, almost conspiratorial hypothesis is that the important facts are always hidden from view. But the public’s (and the media’s) lack of interest in a document trove once it is actually available to them is now legendary. The Panama Papers—an incredible cache that no one expected, or demanded—produced nary a ripple in terms of awareness, or outrage, or change. People forget that the Paradise Papers even existed. It’s true they dealt with financial chicanery, which is decidedly less sexy than presidential corruption (though should it be?). But it isn’t easy to put a succinct frame on a sudden dump of 1.4 terabytes of information, and because there was no easy point of access—no “summary,” if you will—the exposed financial crime was exposed in name only. The public didn’t really know what it meant, or what to do with it.
One of the more effective theorists of this schism between exposure and coverage was, appropriately enough (and as I’ve written before), the now-arrested Julian Assange: “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on,” he said in October of 2009, “but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
WikiLeaks, as Jay Rosen wrote back in 2010, was experimenting with the internet’s ability to produce something like radical transparency: “Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.” Public indifference to public information totally reshaped Assange’s approach to distribution as he shepherded WikiLeaks through different strategies for publicizing its findings. His first discovery, back when WikiLeaks was publishing documents in full, was that open source news production doesn’t work. “Our initial idea,” he said at the University of California, Berkeley in 2010, “was that, look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk that they’re working on. Surely, if you give them a fresh classified document about the human rights atrocities in Fallujah, that the rest of the world has not seen before … surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material, and do something.” It didn’t work. So WikiLeaks started producing—you guessed it—editorialized summaries of partial releases.
We understood from experiences like this that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing—at least summaries—to get people to pick it up, to get journalists to pick it up to get them to dig deeper. And if we didn’t have summaries to give a piece context, it would just fall into the gutter and never be seen again.
On The Colbert Report in 2010, Stephen Colbert quizzed Assange about exactly that, referring to WikiLeaks’ packaging of the 2007 Baghdad airstrikes video leaked by Chelsea Manning: “You have edited this tape,” Colbert says, “and you have given it a title called ‘Collateral Damage.’ That’s not leaking! That’s a pure editorial.” Assange replies that WikiLeaks’ pledge to sources is that “we will try to get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us.” The promise to the public, he says, is that they’ll release the full source material so people can see for themselves. “Then I admire that,” Colbert says, with irony. “I admire someone who is willing to put collateral murder on the first thing people see, knowing that they probably won’t look at the rest of it. That way you’ve properly manipulated the audience into the emotional state you want before something goes on the air.”
(Barr did something similar with his summary, and for a while it seemed to have worked—minus the release of the “raw data.” His mistake was, of course, underestimating Mueller’s team’s willingness to push back, or how vocal House Democrats would be—all of which has kept the value of the report’s secret information sky-high.)
By the 2016 election, Assange and WikiLeaks had evolved both ideologically and strategically. Once they had the Podesta emails, they realized that an even better strategy—better than farming out different findings to different newspapers, as they did with the Afghanistan war logs—was to leak out a few hacked emails at a time with great fanfare, trumpeting their scandalousness and secrecy in tweets. It was a cheaper and faster and more inflammatory strategy, and it worked: Even though there wasn’t much there, people took the bait and absorbed the framing—scandal!—more than the substance. WikiLeaks kept it up, leaking more every time the news cycle started to reset, producing a constant bleed that gave the impression (and only the impression) of an enormous deception being slowly uncovered.
What WikiLeaks understood early (and weaponized) is that we just aren’t cognitively or emotionally suited to this news environment. Engagement is superficial and anxious, agreement is achieved more through consensus with like-minded folks than actual comprehension, and the public’s document fetish is at an all-time high just when it’s clearest that the documents in question can’t possibly provide the anticipated result. The Mueller report cannot deliver what people actually want from it. Neither can Trump’s tax returns.
The illusion that these secret documents can somehow reroute a river of wrongdoing is an understandable response to public impotence. It now appears to be widely understood (by politicians on both sides of the aisle) that if you just hang tight, the news cycle will bury your scandal under fresh horrors. This has been beyond demoralizing for Americans. The document fetish then is a kind of last hope: If political pressure is a race against irrelevance, and the public keeps losing, maybe paper can do what politics can’t.
I don’t think Barr’s edition of the Mueller report can fix this. It’s not that secret documents shouldn’t be public. They clearly should. But their eventual release probably won’t achieve any miracles of arbitration: Trump is unlikely to step down because paperwork showed him misbehaving, his supporters are less likely still to accept whatever wrongdoing the report shows, and his opponents will assume the worst parts have been redacted. Any hope that these documents can create a consensus our political climate can’t is fading.
Still, the impulse to chase information we can’t have—rather than look to the heaps we already do—is tough to shake. Mueller’s investigation may in hindsight, once all the facts are known, turn out to be a crucial chapter in this strange volume of American history. But for those of us stuck in history as it’s being made, this next version will occupy an even stranger spot in America’s evolving ideas about whatever the report says, or is, or should be. Thanks to Barr’s curious interventions, the Mueller report (which was supposed to be definitive and clarifying) has been successfully transformed into the wild MacGuffin many on the right need it to be: an artifact whose authenticity is chronically in question. Another, better version will always be out there, waiting.