How Did We Not See the Absurd Post-Mueller Spin Coming?

by Neil H. Buchanan

There are times when something is unknown to us, yet when it becomes known, we feel like it must have been obvious all along.  The eruption of blatant racism after Barack Obama became president certainly falls into that category: Before the backlash happened, many people felt that Obama's election signaled the permanent marginalization of even most of the coded racism that Republicans had been perfecting for decades; but somehow it now seems that we must have known all along that his presidency would inevitably lead to the rise of racist demagoguery.

Which brings us, of course, to Donald Trump.  Having ridden "birtherism" to political fame, and doubling down on every kind of bigotry imaginable -- aided and abetted, of course, by Fox News and the entire Republican infrastructure -- Trump turned hatred into a political cult, which he has used to drain the few remaining principles out of the party that he took over.

With the end of the Mueller probe, we are now seeing another surprising-but-not-at-all-surprising development, which is the bizarre idea that Trump "won" and that Democrats now have no choice but to ignore his many corruptions.  The insta-conventional wisdom is that, at best, Democrats have received a favor from Mueller by forcing them to focus on issues that matter -- as if presidential corruption is not an issue that matters.  Even more weirdly, it now seems unsurprising to see reports that Trump will try to "turn the tables"on his enemies in post-Mueller Washington.  (The good news: Trump and the Republicans cannot stop themselves from overplaying their hands.)

How did this happen?  Here, I will explain why the reports about Mueller's report -- had we known about them in advance -- would not have seemed at all to be able to "lift the cloud hanging over the White House," as The New York Times and other mainstream outlets have put it in the past day or so.  (Side note: If Trump ever complains again about the Times's coverage of him, he should look at this week's nonsense from that newspaper, especially its headline writers and Peter Baker's writing.)

In the course of describing what is objectively bad news for Trump, I will also try to explain how this is all somehow being spun as good news -- not just by Trump, but by his "enemies" in the press.  Again, we should have seen this coming, because it all seems so, so depressingly obvious now.

To be clear, we do not know what is in the Mueller report.  Everything that is being said and written at this point is based on what has been filtered through Attorney General Bill Barr.  As a starting point, therefore, we should remind ourselves that Trump fired his (utterly obsequious) first attorney general and replaced him with a man whose most salient qualification in Trump's eyes was a memo that disparaged the Special Counsel's inquiry.

Again, if someone had told me in advance that Barr would report "all clear" -- which he did not even do, but never mind -- I never would have imagined that anyone would take it seriously.  Yet we were treated to tales about Barr being a "lawyer's lawyer" and similar rot, and suddenly everyone was supposed to take his spin seriously.  We thus quickly went from, "Let's not assume that this man with a long record of service is necessarily going to sully his legacy by lying" to "Barr says Mueller clears Trump!"

Specifically, of course, there is the much-ballyhooed statement by Barr that Mueller did not find any collusion between Trump and the Russians.  If told about this in advance, the most natural response would have been, "So what?  Trump's side is the one that has been trying to make 'collusion' the word of the day, but that is not what this is about, and it never was.  A finding that Trump had direct conversations with Putin about fixing the election would have been explosive, to be sure, but we already know that the Russians aggressively tried to help Trump win, and Trump has refused to concede even that widely known fact."

Of course, Mueller-via-Barr did not "clear" Trump of collusion at all.  Although Barr tried to spin it, he did quote Mueller's report as saying that the investigation could not establish that there was collusion.  That is what lawyers say when there is not-quite-sufficient-for-prosecution-but-highly-suggestive evidence, not when there is no evidence.  When there is no evidence, prosecutors will not say that they cannot establish the case.  Instead, they might say something like, oh maybe, "There is no evidence."

Because Mueller is apparently not the preening showboat that James Comey was in mid-2016, we should not expect to see a press conference in which Mueller gravely announces that, although he could not definitively prove Russia-Trump collusion, he feels compelled to publicly scold the object of his inquiry.

Which brings us to the second part of Barr's spinning of the report.  Mueller explicitly refused to exonerate Trump regarding possible obstruction of justice -- and, to his credit, Barr at least included that damning non-decision in his announcement -- and appears to have concluded that a competent prosecutor could easily decide to prosecute such a case, or not.  Comey, by contrast, was announcing in mid-2016 that no competent prosecutor would have filed charges against Hillary Clinton -- but again, he publicly scolded her for doing things that he thought were wrong.

Once more, if someone had told me in advance that Mueller and Barr would both say that obstruction of justice was plausibly chargeable, but they had decided not to do so, I would have thought that the Democrats would be dancing in the streets, that Republicans would be scrambling, and that the press would be full of stories about how much worse things would be for Trump going forward.

At this point, it is worth trying to imagine a scenario in which Trump and his Republican supplicants would not have tried to declare victory and take their ball and go home.  Imagine that Barr had reported -- again, we do not know what is actually in Mueller's report -- that there was clear evidence of collusion and obstruction, but Mueller had considered but then rejected the idea of setting aside the Justice Department's longstanding view that sitting presidents' cannot be indicted.  Hence, the report would explicitly recommend against indictment.

"Big win for me," Trump would surely have tweeted.  "Liberals and the Fake News said that I was So Bad that DOJ would have to Indict me, but Mueller's Angry Democrats didn't even chareg me with a crimme.  No indictment, no Impeachment!"  Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and the rest would have signed on in a heartbeat.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, would surely have written navel-gazing pieces about how Mueller obviously must not have thought that Trump's allegedly criminal behavior was all that bad.

Anything short of Mueller marching to the White House brandishing mini-handcuffs, therefore, would have been seen as proof that things are "not as bad as some people said," and thus that Trump was off the hook.  (And if Mueller had done that, then he would have been accused of overreach.)  Again, this is blindingly obvious now, even though I never imagined it before two days ago.

And what about the simple fact that Trump is in no way off the hook, that he and his family and businesses continue to be subject to multiple investigations, and that his tax returns are still not public?  This is where the momentum of public relations spin becomes fascinatingly perverse.

On last night's "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," after reporting that Trump is "winning so hard" and joking about Democrats being despondent, Noah had a segment in which he interviewed his faux-correspondent Roy Wood, Jr.  Wood played the role of a liberal conspiracy nut, saying with wild eyes that all of those other investigations would prove something, or that Mueller was in on it all along, and so on.  Noah said bluntly that "it's over" and told Wood (and thus all liberals) to accept that Trump has been cleared and move on.

I happen to like Noah and his version of "The Daily Show," but like his predecessor, he is especially prone to going with easy reductive jokes and would never in a million years challenge what he views as the emerging conventional wisdom from the mainstream press.  When Trump is flailing, Noah is extremely good at mocking Trump; but when Trump is acting like he won, Noah is immune to saying, "No. he didn't win," unless he has looked over his shoulder to make sure that other people are saying the same thing.

And why are those other people -- the actual news people, not the original Fake News source at Comedy Central -- not reporting this whole thing as nothing more than a moment where it could have been worse for Trump, which would have given people like Noah space to call BS on Trump and the Republicans?

The short answer is that simple story lines are still the order of the day, even (or especially) now.  Breathless reporters on TV news channels need to declare "who won and who lost," in an extension of horse-race election reporting.  Then, bending over backward to say, "Well, Trump does have a point that this could have been worse for him," they report a not-as-bad loss as a win.

Democrats, meanwhile, reliably concede that, yes, we do find this disappointing.  I have pointed out many times that liberals are far too likely to lock themselves into losing narratives by saying things like, "Well, to be fair, I have to admit that ...," even when they have a clearly superior argument.  In a nonpolitical context, that is a virtue.  In American politics -- especially in the Trump era -- it is suicide, or at best unilateral disarmament.

And what has this fair-mindedness brought us?  Discussing a different topic in a recent column, I quoted the economist Brad DeLong, who (after listing all of the ways in which Obama had tried to be fair and reasonable in compromising his positions to attract Republican support) asked and answered a rhetorical question: "[D]id George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not."

Did the Democrats get anything at all for their restraint in saying that Barr's version of Mueller's report was not what they hoped for?  No, they f... .