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If Everything Is a Russia Bombshell, Nothing Is

On the media's overreaction to news about Robert Mueller's investigation

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been weeks since a major news story broke about the Russia investigation, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the media’s frenetic reaction to every development in the story, no matter how small.

For instance, The Washington Post reported last week about the ongoing negotiations between special counsel Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump’s lawyers, who negotiating over how Mueller’s office will interview Trump about Russian meddling and allegations of collusion. Mueller can always subpoena Trump, but he appears to be exhausting his alternatives before resorting to that dramatic step. Mueller “informed President Trump’s attorneys last month that he is continuing to investigate the president but does not consider him a criminal target at this point,” according to the Post, and Mueller told Trump’s lawyers that he would be issuing a report of some kind about Trump’s “actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice.”

Commentators on both sides leapt into action. The New York Post’s David Harsanyi took the report as vindication for Trump, complaining that “much of the political media has worked backward from a preconceived assumption of guilt” over the past year. Not so fast, argued Slate’s Jeremy Stahl: Mueller may just think he’s bound by Justice Department precedents on indicting a sitting president, and a public report is still significant. “That he would seek such a dramatic step sounds like more terrible news for Trump,” he wrote. CNN spent the night debating the report’s significance.

The episode illustrates a growing tendency to over-interpret news about the Russia inquiry. Significant details still get published on a regular basis, but they largely flesh out stories already known about election meddling, collusion, and obstruction of justice. This isn’t a problem on its own. What’s troubling is how the overall tenor of coverage hasn’t kept in sync. Every development sparks breaking news alerts and lengthy panel discussions on cable news, giving undue weight to revelations that don’t necessarily deserve it.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still multiple recent threads worth keeping an eye on: the strange saga of Kremlin-linked businessman George Nader, who is now reportedly cooperating with Mueller; Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s alleged efforts to set up a back-channel with Moscow in the Seychelles; questions about Russian money flowing into the National Rifle Association’s coffers; the entire Cambridge Analytica episode. But approaching every new twist and turn with roughly the same verve doesn’t help the public’s understanding of these issues, and may hinder it.

It wasn’t always like this. Cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and reports of potential Russian meddling received some coverage during the 2016 campaign, but weren’t the most prominent news stories at the time. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Trump’s inflammatory policy proposals received far more attention, especially in the election’s final days.

Only after Trump’s upset victory did Russian interference begin to take center stage. Revelations in early 2017 after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey heightened the sense of alarm. It felt like newspapers published major developments about the investigation every few hours in the two weeks between Comey’s ouster and Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Similar bursts of activity followed last summer’s revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s clandestine campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer, as well as Mueller’s first wave of charges last fall against top Trump campaign officials, including Paul Manafort.

That pace is slower today. This doesn’t mean there’s been a lack of developments. Mueller’s inquiry continues apace as he prepares to interview Trump and bring Manafort to trial. The president continues to vent on Twitter and weigh more concrete efforts to halt the probe. With some exceptions, Republicans in Congress are staying conspicuously quiet or actively trying to undermine the Justice Department and the FBI. But these details haven’t shifted what’s already known about the basic question of collusion.

The Post’s story last week, though only a secondhand look into Mueller’s possible thinking, shed some valuable light on Mueller’s activities. At the same time, the secondary debate over what it all means is somewhat meaningless. First, whether someone is a “target” of an investigation or just a “subject” of it isn’t carved into stone and could easily change as Mueller’s inquiry unfolds. “Trump is not in the clear, but neither are criminal charges necessarily imminent,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer explained. “Trump might never become a target of the investigation, or he could change from subject to target at any time.”

Second, it’s not surprising that Mueller said the president is only a subject at this point. If Mueller revealed that the president was a target, there’s a high risk that Trump would simply shut down the investigation. (He already tried to do so at least once last year.) Telling Trump’s lawyers that he’s neither a subject nor a target could also be seen as exonerating him too soon, thereby falling into the same trap that ensnared Comey before his ouster. That leaves only one option, and Mueller took it.

As I’ve noted before, Mueller’s silence is an effective asset. Prosecutors generally prefer to keep things under wraps while they build a case so witnesses can’t coordinate stories or dispose of potential evidence. Mueller also has the unusual challenge of investigating a man who can shut down that investigation. Keeping Trump and his Republican allies in Congress in suspense about what he’s doing—and thereby keeping alive the possibility that it could find no wrongdoing on Trump’s part—helps forestall another Saturday Night Massacre, at least for now.

This epistemological void also has its drawbacks. With only a partial view of Mueller’s activities, well-intentioned observers have plenty of room to speculate about what he is truly up to. This can range from well-meaning and insightful analysis to more speculative nonsense pushed by Twitter personalities like Louise Mensch and Eric Garland. Nothing seems to have come yet from speculation that the special counsel would uncover something dramatic in Trump’s personal tax returns or find something explosive in Jared Kushner’s pre–White House business deals, for example. Mueller’s silence may be a valuable tactical asset, but it also has its drawbacks for public discourse about Russian meddling.

Under these murky circumstances, how can a casual observer distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t? There are two questions I ask myself when reading about any new details in the Russia investigation.

First, is the latest revelation unusual for those under Mueller’s scrutiny? It’s not unusual, for example, if someone hires a lawyer to represent them when dealing with a special counsel’s office and congressional investigators. Obtaining legal counsel should never be seen as a sign of guilt or wrongdoing under any circumstances. Indeed, when facing Mueller and Congress, it’d be outright foolish not to have a lawyer.

What is unusual is when a client’s lawyers suddenly ask a federal judge to be removed from the case midway through negotiations with prosecutors. Such a fate befell former Trump campaign staffer Rick Gates in February, who had been indicted alongside his longtime associate Manafort last fall. It soon emerged that Gates lied to federal investigators during those negotiations with Mueller, prompting not only his lawyers’ exodus but also a plea deal that now places Manafort in even greater legal jeopardy.

Second, is the latest revelation unexpected on Mueller’s part? Last month, for example, The New York Times reported that the special counsel’s office had subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents related to the Russia inquiry. Targeting a president’s family business is newsworthy and unusual, but not unexpected. Trump frequently made no distinction between his political and corporate interests during the campaign, so it’s not surprising that Mueller wouldn’t see a difference either.

At times, Mueller’s office has also taken steps that go beyond standard operating procedure. A classic example is the daylight no-knock raid on Manafort’s home in Virginia last summer, which signaled that the special counsel’s office would apply more pressure than normal to Trump’s former campaign chairman. Other moves are more inscrutable. CNN reported on Thursday that Mueller’s team is questioning some Russian oligarchs at U.S. airports and using the Fourth Amendment’s border exception to search their devices, an aggressive step that may (or may not) indicate greater significance.

The challenge here is that Mueller has a reputation for meticulousness, as I’ve noted before. This makes it hard to distinguish between what he’s doing to be thorough and what he’s doing because it’s central to the investigation. My rule of thumb in general for measuring the significance of any investigative step that Mueller takes is straightforward: Based on what we already know, would it be weirder if he wrapped up the Russia investigation without doing it? When it comes to much of the news about his inquiry of late, the answer is a resounding yes.