The most hyped books are usually disappointments. Such is the nature of hype. But there’s one category of reader that is never disappointed: the fan. In the case of the Mueller report, fans of Russiagate, a cult as fervent as the one surrounding the Harry Potter franchise, were told by its first reviewer, United States Attorney General William Barr, that they were in for a disappointment. Expectations were adjusted. The report arrived, albeit in somewhat redacted form. Black blotches marked “HARM TO ONGOING MATTER” conceal chunks of text and create gaps in the narrative. The erasures are undoubtedly more titillating than the information they conceal, which will emerge in other legal cases if it isn’t, like much that Robert Mueller has written up, public knowledge already. The report has been compared flatteringly to the greatest detective novels and spy thrillers. David Brooks in the New York Times said that it was “the legal version of a thriller movie”. Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post called it “the best book on the Trump White House so far.”
As an account of reality, Lozada has a point. The book is thoroughly sourced and based on testimony delivered under oath: it is not marred by unreliable, self-serving anonymous voices; it is not dominated by Steve Bannon, an overbearing presence in most Trump Lit who is here relegated to the status of a minor character. But as a work of literature, the Mueller report is deeply unsatisfying. Its authors – a team of nearly twenty lawyers – have gone to great lengths to eradicate any traces of their own personalities, any sense of irony, and anything that might be mistaken for a stylistic flourish. This is frequently the case with legal documents, but the Mueller report seems an extreme example. The prose is as grey as the skin of a two-day-old corpse and the only language with any life to it appears between quotation marks.
The Mueller report fails as a detective story first of all because the detective has been entirely obscured. The narrative persona is infatuated with its own impartiality, its unwillingness either to indict or exonerate. It is not omniscient and doesn’t pretend to have insights into the inner lives of its characters who, in their pursuit of political access, often seem like dogs chasing scraps of food. It wouldn’t have been proper for Mueller’s team to make itself the hero of this tale, so as a result there are no heroes, only the occasional minor player trying not so much to do the right thing as to avoid doing the wrong thing, usually out of a sense of self-preservation. Such is the case of Don McGahn, the White House counsel. Seeing the prospects of a Watergate replay, he discourages the president from meddling in the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference. Of course, there’s always the overgrown boy scout James Comey popping in and out of the story pledging to be “honest” when the president asks him to be “loyal,” by which he actually means “crooked”. The president seems genuinely befuddled by the presence of a straight-up guy because he surrounds himself with grifters and sycophants. The exchanges between Trump and Comey are the closest the Mueller report comes to comedy. Mostly it is a farce that isn’t very funny, a study in serial anti-climaxes.
It also lacks compelling villains. Yes, there are the Russian spies – a bit of an exaggeration in the case of this bunch of online pranksters – whose idea of effective tradecraft is sending somebody onto the streets of New York in a Santa suit wearing a Trump mask. Yes, there are the hackers, who are a touch more effective in their tasks than the typical Nigerian scammer. But the lesson of this part of the story is that political campaigns should be doing a better job of securing their email and training fogeys like John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, to protect themselves from spearphishing attacks. Yes, there is Julian Assange, whose egotism is on display whenever he opens his mouth and pontificates in the manner of a maker and breaker of kings. Yes, there is Paul Manafort, the personification of venality, but in his quest to make money as a globe-trotting Trump whisperer offering his services to any dictator willing to foot the bill, he’s no Iago. The most colourful of Manafort’s intrigues are in the service of Russia-aligned Ukrainians, but he scotches a plan to engineer the return to power of Victor Yanukovich, the deposed prime minister, here identified as the man who once gave Manafort “the biggest black caviar jar”, with an alleged value of between $30,000 and $40,000. Such a plan would be too “crazy,” even for candidate Trump. That’s about as effective as the intrigue gets. Much of whatever personal drama there was in the story has been repressed in the telling. The most common emotions experienced by the characters in the report are exasperation and embarrassment, as at meetings Jared Kushner attends without preparation that turn out to be a waste of everybody’s time or among aides who quietly refrain from carrying out the president’s more self-defeating requests.
Many a good spy novel relies on a sinister mastermind. Even John Le Carré, who eschewed the sadistic cartoonishness of Ian Fleming, gave us Karla, the ruthless head of Moscow Centre running moles within the intelligence agencies of his capitalist foes. In the ample Mueller fan fiction published over the last two years, Karla was Putin himself and the mole was Trump. In the report itself, Putin is hardly present, many layers removed from Russia’s cyber-vandals if he was aware of them at all and struggling to get a message to Trump after his election. When it arrives, the president-elect’s staff is uncertain of its authenticity. Hope Hicks forwards the email from Putin’s people to Jared Kushner and says: “Can you look into this? Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!”
And finally there is Trump: self-pitying, narcissistic, demanding loyalty from a staff who on some level all loathe him. Once he becomes the target of a criminal investigation he trys to put them to work running interference. Trump himself lacks the dual loyalty of a double agent like the Soviet mole Bill Haydon in Le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and is anyway lousy at subterfuge. It’s always obvious that he’s only looking out for one thing: himself. Trump’s demise, if it comes, will be at the ballot box – not in a bloody or breath-taking denoument of the kind beloved of practitioners of this genre. And that’s the simple reason the Mueller report fails as a thriller: it lacks thrills.