After two years of frenzy, special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference is over, his report is in, and we can put the Russiagate saga to rest and move on.
According to a letter by Attorney General William Barr, Mueller’s report states that there is no evidence President Donald Trump or Trump campaign staffers conspired with the Russian government to influence the election; it does not conclusively exonerate Trump on the question of obstruction of justice, but Barr clears him on that as well.
The reaction has been as sane and measured as one would expect.
Trump and his supporters, claiming total vindication, have indeed moved on — to trashing the news media that have hyped the “Russia hoax.” Meanwhile, many #resistance types who have insisted for months that impeachment and indictment were just around the corner seem torn between denial and anger. Some claim charges against Trump are still on the way. Some claim that Mueller, a savior just days ago, is a partisan Republican who delivered a whitewash.
But what do we actually know? The “hoax/witch hunt” narrative suggests the probe was a politically motivated search for a made-up offense. Not so fast.
First, Mueller and Barr concur that Russian election meddling was real, that Russian agents hacked Democratic National Committee emails and turned them over to WikiLeaks, the document-disclosure site viewed as a Russian asset. Did this affect the election outcome? We’ll never know, but the WikiLeaks-generated myth that Hillary Clinton stole the nomination from Sen. Bernie Sanders may have made a key difference in very close races.
Second, there were shady contacts between Trump campaign staffers and Russian government proxies, some related to election meddling. Mueller has found that none of it rose to criminal conspiracy. Even so, the fact that people close to Trump were interested in acquiring “dirt” on Clinton from Russians who said they were acting on the Kremlin’s behalf should be disturbing.
Third, Trump did act in ways that aroused legitimate suspicions, from his boast to Russian officials that he had fired “crazy” FBI chief James Comey because of the “Russia thing” to his chronic reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin. That doesn’t prove collusion, only volatility and affection for authoritarian strongmen. But it wasn’t paranoid to want to (quoting Trump in another context) “figure out what the hell is going on.”
Yet it also is true that Trump-Russia speculation from many on the left went overboard. There were bombshell stories that fell apart and sensational predictions of arrests. Even some reputable mainstream pundits pushed the notion that Trump could be a Russian agent. The blurring of lines between news and entertainment added to the problem. Every week, TV viewers heard pundit-comedian Bill Maher excoriate Trump as a traitor and watched “Saturday Night Live” comedy skits in which an always-shirtless Putin brandished a compromising tape to cow Trump. No wonder more than half of Democrats came to believe that Russia had tampered with the vote to help Trump win, for which there is zero evidence.
The extreme version of the collusion narrative that painted Trump as Putin’s puppet was never embraced by most of the mainstream media; but now, much of the media criticism on the right and the anti-Clinton far left lumps together bizarre conspiracy theories, sloppy reporting and straightforward coverage of the Russia probe. Unfortunately, all of the media will take a hit to its reputation for the sins of those who messed up.
Perhaps so far, the main lesson of Russiagate is: Whichever side you’re on, wait for the facts.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.