Look at the Mueller Report as a Detective Story. It Will Blow Your Mind.

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Look at the Mueller Report as a Detective Story. It Will Blow Your Mind.

It may turn out to be a film noir. The investigators uncovered the plot, but the society is too rotten to do anything about it.

By Quinta Jurecic

Ms. Jurecic is the managing editor of Lawfare.Aug. 2, 2019

CreditCreditOwen Freeman

When the Mueller report was released, commentators reviewed it not only as a political and legal work but also as another genre: literature. In The Washington Post, Carlos Lozada described the report as “the best book by far on the workings of the Trump presidency.” Michiko Kakutani wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review that it held “the visceral drama of a detective novel, spy thriller, or legal procedural.” Laura Miller of Slate found it to be a work of “palace intrigues.”

Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill was subjected to theater reviews, too: Political reporters speculated on the “optics” of his appearance, while President Trump declared, “This was one of the worst performances in the history of our country.”

The theatrical focus is a little much. But the literary critics are onto something. The report tells what is probably one of the biggest stories of our lifetimes — and understanding that narrative as a narrative can help make sense of the confused political moment.

Exploring the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the writer Don DeLillo described in his novel “Libra” the endless work of sleuthing new information on the president’s death as an effort to draft the “book of America” — the novel “in which nothing is left out.” The same might be said of the Mueller report.

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The first half of the report — on efforts by the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election — is a spy thriller, a high-stakes caper with greed, dirty deals and intrigue straight out of a Cold War potboiler. The second half — on President Trump’s efforts to obstruct Mr. Mueller’s investigation — is a Shakespearean drama about deception and power. But at its core, the 448-page volume is a detective story.

Like most good detective stories, the report actually tells two stories at once. First, there is the tale of what happened: The Russian government worked to reach out to Mr. Trump’s circle and, once he began running for president, his campaign; then, when the F.B.I. and later Mr. Mueller began investigating, Mr. Trump repeatedly sought to undercut the probe.

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But nestled in the citations and prosecution or declination decisions for each section, there is the second story, which is closer to what most people think of when they think of a detective novel — the drama of how Mr. Mueller and his team came to uncover that first narrative and what they made of it. Examining footnotes, the reader can trace which information came from which witness — and discover, for example, that Don McGahn, then the White House counsel, provided Mr. Mueller’s office with hours of interviews about the conduct of the president.

Detective stories are usually about order and the collapse of order: The world is shattered by an act of violence, and the detective sets about making things right by turning the crime into something that can be explained. As Ms. Kakutani writes, “At the end of detective stories, order is usually restored with the solving of a crime, and with the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators.”

The Mueller report does provide a framework for understanding just what has happened to America in 2016 and the years since.

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More than a tale about the restoration of order, though, the Mueller investigation is also about the limits of what can be known. Consider, for example, what the report says about Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s erstwhile campaign chairman. Mr. Manafort, writes Mr. Mueller, shared polling data produced by the campaign with a man known very likely to be connected to Russian military intelligence. The subplot is full of possibility, but it ends up leading nowhere. Mr. Mueller writes that his office “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose” in sharing the information, in part because Mr. Manafort and his colleagues used encrypted messaging to communicate with one another.

Or there’s the question of what Mr. Trump knew or didn’t know about his campaign’s communications with individuals linked to the Russian government, and whether he was truthful in his written answers.

In this, the Mueller report fits neatly into a subgenre known as the “metaphysical detective story” — stories that take Sherlock Holmes’s triumphant cracking of the case and turn it upside down, so the detective’s efforts end in the same disorder with which they began. These are mysteries about the impossibility of ever really solving a mystery, or perhaps of knowing anything at all.

The uncertainties that hover around the Mueller report evoke similar themes. How much can be known about what Donald Trump had in mind when he fired James Comey? Was Mr. Trump intent on stopping the Russia investigation, or was his goal to remove an F.B.I. director who irritated him for other reasons? Will the question of what Paul Manafort was up to remain forever unanswered, the information crucial to solving the puzzle lost? And if the full story of the Russia affair remains beyond the reach of explanation, to what extent does this cast doubt on the whole project of restoring order in the first place?

As in the metaphysical detective story, these factual gaps raise broader questions about the detective’s inability to reconstruct the story of the crime. Put crudely, this is the question of what it means that Robert Mueller can’t save the country. It’s how to understand the effect on the stability of American democracy of both the president’s relative impunity at the end of an investigation that strongly implied he may have committed serious crimes and the nation’s inability to come to grips with the fact of interference by a foreign power in an election.

Or to put it another way: Does anything matter?

Mr. Mueller clearly thinks it does. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, he became most animated when he spoke about election interference: “I hope this is not the new normal,” he said, “but I fear it is.”

In this way, the Mueller report may turn out to be more of a film noir than anything else. The detective successfully uncovers the plot, only to discover that the society around him is too rotten to do anything about it. For all the missing pieces in this story, the issue is less whether it can be told and more whether anyone cares to listen.RelatedOpinion | Quinta Jurecic4 Disturbing Details You May Have Missed in the Mueller ReportJune 7, 2019

Quinta Jurecic (@qjurecic)is the managing editor of Lawfare.

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