On (Not) Reading the Mueller Report
By Katherine VoylesDecember 9, 2019
The gap between the American public actually reading the report in its 448-page redacted entirety and the high degree of public interest in the report evidenced by its best-seller status is worth exploring. The Mueller Report tells a story, it has an ending, but — in the very fact of its existence — itself is also an ending. There’s a difference between what is written in a book and the very fact of the existence of that book; there’s an ending to the book, but the publication of the book itself is a different kind of ending, and it’s these differences that provide some explanation for why we’re buying copies of a book that we’re not reading.
Endings, we suppose, round out and finish off the story and are always open to scrutiny, but rarely have questions around just what kind of finale we’re experiencing been so fraught and rarely have the interpretative stakes been so high. For my part, a defining reason why there is so much interest in the report and so little reading of the report itself has to do with deeply felt expectations around the powers and limitations of storytelling, what it means to complete a narrative, and what it means to be in the middle of a story that you thought was complete. If writing about the Mueller Report today, writing in the wake of the aftermath of its release, is an exercise in belatedness, it uses that tardiness to underscore the upheaval that occurs when endings are so weighty and their meanings so confused and confusing.
The gap between the large number of us who bought the report and the tiny number who read it is especially worth examining in the wake of high-profile events that spotlight the urgency of actually reading it. Mueller’s terse testimony to Congress at the end of July referenced the content of the report and frequently made reference to specific pages. What Mueller didn’t do was read the report that colloquially carries his name. Given the chance to summarize findings, speak to the American public about the report, or to read passages, Mueller gave short answers or asked that the member read the report in his or her own voice. This was entirely predictable. In fact, his appearance was prefaced by his statement in his own voice that “the report is my testimony.” That statement, in turn, was previewed by actions about reading and not reading that include: the House Democrats going to the floor to take turns reading aloud the entire redacted report; Representative Justin Amash’s tweet on May 18 that “[f]ew members of Congress have read the report”; the dramatic reading of major events from the second volume on stage by celebrities including John Lithgow, Annette Bening, and Kevin Kline; and, of course, Robert Mueller’s own 10-minute-long plea to us to read his work. These activities fill the gap between reading and not reading, but neither in their form nor their content explain, or even attempt explanation, for the expansive gap between the large number of Americans buying the book and the small number reading it.
The gulf between reading the whole report and buying the book requires a trip back in time. In February of this year, two competing narratives about the report ran parallel to each other: stories about the possibility that Mueller’s work might not become public existed alongside stories about the Washington Post’s plans to publish the report as a book. This is only one reminder of the considerable uncertainty that swirled around the report’s crucial aspects, including when it would drop, and how deeply it would be redacted. What the end of Mueller’s investigation would look like, when it would arrive, what form it would take, and what it would entail were all live questions. The arrival of the Mueller Report would mark an ending. It would be a completion and for a host of competing, contentious, contradictory reasons Americans craved a finale.
Instead in March we entered a period of waiting, of suspension. The Mueller Report was complete, it was safely at DOJ, but we couldn’t read it for ourselves. Into already sky-high levels of anticipation, Attorney General William Barr wrote multiple letters and spoke (that 22-minute press conference before the report had been released), lifting the people’s and the press’s expectations into the stratosphere. Before the report was available, crucial facts emerged about its long length — it was no terse explanation of who was prosecuted and why and why prosecutions were declined — and its two-part structure, with Volume One focused on issues of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with Americans and Volume Two focused on obstruction of justice. The betwixt and between account of the report’s conclusions, summed up by the phrase “does not exonerate,” intensified the between-times experience.
Just like that, the report dropped in April. Journalists and everyday Americans rushed to websites, printers, Twitter, and other platforms. After an extended period of waiting and wondering came a rush as the curtain lifted on the final scene. Initial readings were necessarily partial and jumbled as reporters dove into the section of the report they were assigned. Through these exercises, Barr’s excerpts were weighed against Mueller’s prose, revelations were seized upon (Corey Lewandowski was supposed to get Jeff Sessions to un-recuse), the quantity of redactions was noted and pronouncements were made, lines and extracts from the report circulated on social media, quoted in newspapers, and read on-air. Typically they were identified by the volume in which they appeared, but this wasn’t the time to identify the through-lines and narrative threads of the document. Even so, hard positions were staked with “no collusion, no obstruction” facing off against people pointing out that Mueller didn’t even look at collusion (rather, he examined criminal conspiracy). The executive summaries received special attention; at least two popular podcasts, Slate’s Trumpcast and The Lawfare Podcast, released readings of the entire summaries.
For all that, reading the report was only a tiny fraction of the story. Benjamin Wittes’s intensively, even obsessively, detailed reading of the full, redacted report, first published on Lawfare, is now its own book. Wittes’s work, his deep and sustained engagement with the report, stands out because it is based on reading the report in its entirety and reading it in order. I note, with extremely high levels of interest, a project of his that involves tweeting a line from the report with the hashtag #MuellerReportOutofContext. This out-of-order presentation of the report is in contrast to the podcast The Report, which bills itself as “a multi part audio narrative series, telling you the story of what is in this document, the story Mueller wants you to understand.” It turns out that this kind of storytelling is really popular. The very existence of the report, its public presence and the “omg, it’s here” feeling of the early days around the release were as important as the very fact of reading it. The report’s arrival heralded a longed-for and long-awaited end, a relief from suspense and suspension. So many of my fellow Americans skipped the reading in favor of the purchase simply because being able to get your hands on the report was itself a marker of finality.
If the very existence of the report was a kind of completion, the narrative it presents is a page-turner. I read it because I wanted to see how the 448 pages wrapped up, but I was also always going to read it because the simple act of reading it marked a complicated kind of wrapping up. I’d even read and reviewed seven books about the Trump-Russian relationship while waiting for the report to drop. Will Stancil tweeted, “Everyone who reads the report comes back white-faced and talking about impeachment and then everyone else is like ‘Wow, it’s really long and I heard there wasn’t anything new in it.’” I don’t know if I actually turned ashen, but I did feel it. Reliving the “sweeping and systematic” attack by the Russian military against everyday American social media users, listening again to the Trump campaign’s responses to Russia and revisiting the Russian responses to the Trump campaign in the first volume was harrowing. And then came the second volume, which recounted some of the cortisol-spiking events of the early months of the Trump presidency: the firing of Michael Flynn, the revelations that the DOJ knew Flynn lied to the FBI, the announcement by Comey of a counterintelligence investigation into the 2016 election, the firing of Comey, and the tweets, always the tweets.
The thing about reading it front to back is that it doesn’t feel like a story chopped in two. It feels seamless even though it is broken roughly in half, and each half is cut up because dense legal language and arguments threaten to, but don’t actually, interrupt the narrative stream. One event flows into the next so that their order informs one another even if the report’s prose doesn’t clearly spell out obvious connections. It’s for this reason that, while I am a loyal listener of the hugely popular and influential podcast The Report, I don’t wholly support its self-conception that it narrativizes a complex document. Its ability to make Mueller’s work a story is because Mueller’s team wrote a story! In April 2016, George Papadopoulos was in London when he learned that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort were not impressed by the information on offer during the June 9, 2016, meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya. Then in July, Carter Page went to Moscow. Later in July, WikiLeaks started dumping material stolen by the GRU. Even so, by the end of the month Trump still wanted Hillary’s emails and, in a speech in Doral, Florida, asked Russia to get them. And it turns out, they tried. These events are laid out in rapid succession on pages five and six of the Executive Summary to Volume One.
In the report, the methodical and meticulous Mueller team presents the order of events chronologically, but the general public neither learned of these events in real time nor in the order that they occurred; we learned of them in an “Opposite Day” kind of way. Early events were revealed later, while later events were revealed earlier. On July 8, 2017, The New York Times reported on the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting. On December 30, 2017, it reported that the Russian investigation started because of events in March and April of the previous year. In May 2018, it followed up with an in-depth look that went inside the FBI to report on the origins of Crossfire Hurricane. All stories run on two tracks: the order of events as they happen and the order of events as they are revealed. For more than two years, this reality was extremely disorienting. Endings align the order of events as they happened with the order as they were revealed. The Mueller Report does this both through its very existence and because it sequences events. As the events stack up, story lines come into sharper relief, although the reader’s work increases because she has an increasing number of activities to track. Crossing from Volume One into Volume Two does not mean starting over or rebooting. Rather, it means carrying over the information from the coordination half (Vol. One) into the obstruction half (Vol. Two). But it also means letting Volume Two further inform events in Volume One. I was captivated by an 85-minute dramatic reading of key events from Volume Two, but what that gained in intensity through isolating obstruction of justice was relinquished in terms of catching relations between the two halves of the report. Moving through a narrative that lays out the order of events as they occurred means moving forward in time, but it also means looking backward, reviewing how later events are born of earlier ones. Reading in this loopy, looping way isn’t quirky — it’s what the very language of the report directs: “[T]he investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”
The public reading on the House floor didn’t take place in those feverish, tumultuous early moments of the report’s release. That reading on the House floor, of course, ended, its completion coterminous with the final words of the report. The deep engagement with the report practiced by these representatives is not characteristic of Congress’s engagement with the report. Following Amash’s Twitter claim, the Washington Post contacted the offices of key members of the House and Senate to determine how deeply they dove into the report. What stands out is less the number of elected officials who have or have not read the report but the number who refuse to tell the public whether they’ve read the report. And it’s not just Congress, it’s also people who appear in front of Congress: Andrew McCarthy told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he had not read all of the report despite testifying to the lessons learned about counterintelligence.
The final scene of The Sopranos–quality of the report and its reception, the sudden appearance of the black screen when Tony looks up from that diner table, has been with us for too long, the report’s arrival bringing about not an end, but an extension and all the uncertainty and anxiety of the now-elongated timeframe. What does it mean to live in a time when a public report “does not exonerate” the sitting president of the United States? For a time right after its arrival, reading the whole redacted report didn’t seem necessary because the end was reached when the report arrived in public, but in this period of waiting to see what happens next, to experience the fallout from Mueller’s testimony, to live through the next phase of Congressional investigation and oversight, it makes sense to dive into the report, to begin at the beginning and keep going until the very last word.
Katherine Voyles recently appeared on Slate’s Trumpcast to discuss the cultures of national defense and national defense in culture by talking about Jim Mattis and the Mueller investigation.
Banner image: "2018.11.07 Protect Muller at the White House, Washington, DC" by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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