The Mueller Report and the Silence of the Experts

Academics and experts in political science failed to cut through the noise of partisan skeptics and true believers

Timothy Frye
GEN
Published in
4 min readJul 24, 2019

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Robert Mueller. Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

TThe report from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller highlights many shortcomings in American democracy, but also reveals a deeper failure that informs our broader politics: the silence of the experts. Those well-positioned to comment on the investigation — academic Russia watchers, political science experts on elections, and non-partisan national security specialists — too often ceded the media coverage and mainstream debate to partisans.

Two voices dominated in the run-up to the Mueller report. True believers filled in the dots between each bit of tantalizing evidence to create a conspiracy of daunting proportions dating back to 1987. While the Mueller report delivered a devastating picture of Russian interference encouraged by team Trump, it also did not provide evidence for a good number of the claims put forward by the true believers.

True skeptics were on even weaker ground by downplaying the extent of Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. They should note that the second sentence of the Mueller report states clearly: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

These are, however, the normal failures of our hyper-partisan politics in which reliably partisan commentators dominate debate and play to their most hardened supporters. The silence of expert communities — who failed to ask hard questions of the true believers and true skeptics — is the deeper failure here. With some important exceptions, the experts were drowned out by shriller voices.

Academic Russia-watchers could have countered common depictions of Russian politics as a one-man show. President Putin’s powers are vast, but he cannot design or implement foreign influence operations on his own. He must delegate some power and control over implementation to corrupt bureaucrats, undisciplined hackers, and shadowy mercenaries who have their own interests and resources. Nor does Putin have “close ties” with every businessperson in Russia. To understand why and how the Kremlin hacks other countries, Russia hands could have…

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Timothy Frye
GEN
Writer for

Marshall Shulman Professor Columbia University, Research Director, ICSID, Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Write about politics, autocracy and Russia.