The Mueller Denouement
While I’ve long considered the president to be a man rather of a foolish than a knavish bent, the contents of the Mueller Report tempt me to reconsider this ordering of terms. Perhaps from the outset it was far too sympathetic an order and, on top of that, exceedingly ingenuous. I admit that in saying so, I feel a bit embarrassed. Indeed, at this point, after having read what I’ve read and heard all the commentary by which it’s surrounded, a complete reversal of the terms might be needed. In the newest organization, in light of Mueller’s inglorious deluge of evidence, knave may well insert itself before fool if I’m to employ the best, most candid correction.
Granted, the understanding of which I’m availed is of a lay and not a legal type; I can’t speak to the nuanced intricacies of the law—subtle and unpalatable they may be. I’m not the one upon whom you should look to expound those points of prudence and legality and the like. What I can say, however, is that Mueller’s voluminous work (nearing in its entirety some four-hundred and fifty pages), for whose production two and a half years were necessary and to whose funding twenty-five million taxpayer dollars were allocated, doesn’t make the president look good. Quite the contrary, and—if we’re being completely frank—quite unequivocally, the report depicts the president in a highly unbecoming way.
Of course, the report draws no mean caricature of the man. In no way is it a fictive work. No latitude of artistic license was required. President Trump isn’t made to look knavish nor villainous by the imaginative effort of Mueller’s prosaic pen. It was his own conduct that etched him into that form. Doubtless, his personality and his comportment aren’t an invention—contrived somewhere in a joint Disney-MSNBC sketch room. When all is gilded artifice, there is no artifice. President Trump isn’t a man to whom many creative attributes need be ascribed. In fact, I’m not so sure that even if given such ascriptions, his already-bursting personality could contain them. No team of writers would be required to craft his character, as he’s all but inimitable—for better or for worse.
To worsen in the eyes of Congress and the American public the president’s image was, in part, the report’s obvious intent. Having read it, it’s impossible to conclude otherwise. The inquiry for which this investigation was opened—whether or not the Trump campaign colluded or conspired with the Russian government to benefit his electability in the 2016 race—was addressed in the first of Mueller’s two garrulous volumes. On this point, the conclusion was rather explicit. This, I think, provided a sense of finality by which most Americans were impressed. Seldom is prevarication tossed aside for the blunt truth, but it wouldn’t be long until it was picked up again in the second volume.
Comprising hundreds of pages more, of which some are written in the inscrutably boring language of legalese, the second volume begins with renewed force. The question into which this subsequent volume delves is whether or not the Trump campaign and then the Trump administration obstructed justice. As opposed to his pronouncement at the end of the first volume, that of the second is far more equivocal. While Mueller takes pains to state his disinclination to prosecute the president, he makes clear that he isn’t prepared to jettison the prospect of exonerating him either.
To use the parlance of a completely different field, Mueller seems here to have “punted” on the answer to the question around which this entire investigation (or at least what the later investigation became) revolved. Contrary to James Comey’s responsibility in the summer of 2016, it was Robert Mueller’s job to recommend or discommend prosecution. Comey, you’ll recall, inserted his opinion where it probably didn’t belong. After failing to attribute to Hillary Clinton the requisite “intent” of jeopardizing classified material on her private computer server, Comey infamously recommended against Loretta Lynch (then the Attorney General under President Obama) pursuing further legal action against her. Thus, there were two glaring errors for which he was responsible: he incorporated “intent” into a crime for which it ought to have been irrelevant (harboring classified documents on a home-brew server is a crime irrespective of your intention either to disseminate or to destroy them) and he imposed his own predilection upon the case that Clinton not be charged nor pursued in a legal sense.
By concluding his investigation in the aforementioned way, Comey rendered unnecessary the need for the case to go to the Attorney General. He’d already dictated the result. As for Mueller’s conclusion, he went about things in the exact opposite way. For one, he was investigating a possible crime at whose center lay intent. Unlike the attempt to harbor emails (an admittedly venial but prima facia crime), the attempt to collude with a foreign nation or the attempt to impede a body of oversight looking into such an act is dependent on one’s intent. And, so far as Mueller was concerned, he was frustratingly unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that intent. Instead, he made visible all the indiscrete actions in which the president engaged, made clear all the peccadilloes and all the more unprepossessing sins of which he was the author, and told the current Attorney General, Bill Barr, to decide what to do.
Much can be made of Barr’s consequent actions. Suffice it to say, he’s proven himself an invaluable legal asset to the preservation of President Trump. The latter’s political longevity, in some ways, is tied up with Barr’s legal acumen. And acumen, as was evidently on display after watching his many hours of public testimony in front of an indignant and vicious Congress, is not something of which Barr is in short supply. As sagacious as he is contumacious, Barr is impeccably clever. He’s full of wry comedic timing, stolid erudition, and indiscernible tact. With unflappable and at times scholarly sangfroid, he went about his hearing as if he’d done it a hundred times before. Of course, he was the Attorney General under President Bush, and probably has done this hundreds of times before, but that was some time ago. This time around like last, he handled every question put to him and made his opposition appear quite unpracticed and small.
Ultimately, he was responsible (along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein) for having decided against the prosecution of President Trump. This was the conclusion heard around the world for which the country awaited with bated breath. There was, in Rosenstein’s and Barr’s opinion, as well as in that of Mueller, no clear and explicitly definable crime of which the president was guilty. At least he wasn’t found guilty on traditional legal grounds.
Yet that doesn’t mean that in the absence of Barr’s conviction, the president is somehow guiltless, much less deserving of our approbation. Far from it, there’s no lens through which one can view the second part of the Mueller report and find himself nodding in approval or genial satisfaction at the conduct displayed by President Trump. His behavior was, to put it mildly, completely indecorous. More bluntly stated, it was downright capricious, subversive, and vile.
Without scruple, foresight, or even a little bit of self-restraint, the president attempted on multiple occasions to do things that might’ve led to possible crimes. And, if I might take from the cartoon Scooby Doo its redundant final line, he would’ve gotten away with it too—had it not been for his meddling staff. And by “gotten away with it”, I mean he would’ve successfully carried out a criminal act, and would likely now be impeached.
It was the stark lack of pliancy—and, as I might’ve once earlier impugned, servility—displayed by the most intimate members of the president’s staff that prevented him from achieving that ignominious end. If that’s meddling, I urge them to do it some more. Over and again, the president—in his intermittent piques of rage—directed his staff members to carry out some action whose legality would now be considered dubious at best. And as many times as he ordered or asked, his staffers demurred. They proved heroically, perhaps even salvifically unavailing in carrying out his plans. For all the lack of scrupulosity and candor of which this staff has been accused, on this occasion, it proved its worth Indeed, it proved incapable of disobeying certain imperatives of conscience we thought it never possessed. It’s for this reason, and probably only this reason, that the president isn’t undergoing an impeachment trial as we speak.
Once considered jesters, the people by whom the president was surrounded proved ultimately heroic. We laugh at them no more. They deserve and they’ve earned not our raillery but our respect. It’s for no reason other than their obstinate stolidity and defiance in the face of Trump’s pique that the president remains where he is. They may have been castigated and mocked for their efforts (by both the president and the press), but they served as a last and insuperable barrier between a country and a Constitutional crisis. And while they play the heroes, the president plays the knave.