The Mueller Report
Robert Mueller’s report is finally out, and I have achieved full junkie status by actually speed-reading the whole thing. I have some reactions and some thoughts on where things go from here, but first, the bottom line: While the conclusions of the report are far better than the alternative for President Donald Trump, this is not over by a long shot. Mueller did his part to see to that by writing what is essentially a political document designed to curry favor with the establishment, protect his Justice Department and intelligence-community pals, enhance his prospects for continuing to eat lunch in this town, and provide an impeachment roadmap for the Democrats in Congress.
A good place to start is the actual appointment of Mueller as special counsel, which is defined as a lawyer appointed to investigate and potentially prosecute a particular case of suspected wrongdoing for which a conflict may exist for the normal prosecuting authority. Mueller was appointed special counsel with a very broad mandate. He was authorized to conduct a thorough investigation of Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, including links or coordination between Russia and any individuals associated with the Trump campaign. Tellingly, there was no specific mention of Hillary Clinton or DOJ/intel involvement.
In spite of the fact that there never was a particular case of Trump wrongdoing identified, it was accepted wisdom that Russia not only meddled in the election but did so to help Trump get elected and hurt Hillary. The source of this insight was the “intelligence community,” which supposedly consolidated 19 agency reviews into this conclusion. Actually, the conclusion defied common sense, and in fact there never was any such agreement among the intelligence community that Russia wanted Trump to be president. But Mueller cites it, along with a laundry list of contacts between Russia and Trump folks, most of minor import on trivial matters, as the kickoff point for the investigation.
If you think about it, why in the world would Russia prefer Trump to Hillary? Trump was promising to jump-start our economy, expand energy production to make us independent and lower prices, and dramatically build up the military — all basically Russia’s worst nightmares. Further, Trump was a billionaire — not exactly the kind of guy susceptible to bribery. Hillary, on the other hand, had made a “Russian reset” a campaign fixture and had shown, shall we say, a keen propensity to trade cash for political favors. Witness Uranium One and multiple helpings involving the Clinton Foundation.
The Russians aren’t stupid. Why would they burn calories to try to get a guy elected who is not only worse for them but is almost certain to lose? It is far more likely that Russia just wanted to sow chaos in our system or weaken the inevitable winner who everyone knew was cruising to a massive landslide. Even the examples cited as Russian interference — like the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s computers — were more embarrassing for Hillary than anyone else, as it showed that the books were cooked against Bernie Sanders.
Nevertheless, intelligence officials focused on Trump and Russia, and Mueller was off to the races. Somehow they never seemed to get around to Hillary or others. But let’s pause for a second, put the Russian hacking into perspective, and stop treating them as some kind of geniuses. There’s no question that any election interference by a hostile foreign power is a bad thing. But look at what Russia actually did. A high-schooler could have hacked the DNC computers, and a third-grader could have scammed Podesta. Moreover, the so-called “sophisticated” Russian social-media manipulation was an amateur-hour rounding error; our voting systems were not compromised; the $100,000 total outlay on Facebook ads was less than Hillary’s team spent in an hour; and a minuscule number of voters were influenced.
You know how we are sure of that? “The One” told us. He had been aware of Russian interference efforts for more than a year prior to the primaries and did nothing because he did not want to taint the ultimate Hillary landslide with hints of Russian assistance. We were assured that the Russians could do nothing to compromise our elections, so all he did was tell Vladimir Putin to “cut it out.” The after-the-fact expulsion of some Russian agents and the closing of a couple facilities were just showtime.
The same is true of the Trump folks. The size of the list of those with some peripheral contact with Russia is impressive, which isn’t exactly a tribute to Trump’s hiring skills. But this was brave new political territory for everybody. and the idea that this cast of characters could engineer a sophisticated Russian election conspiracy is ludicrous. Further, if Trump wanted to collude with Putin, he could have just picked up the phone. So it’s fascinating how the very premise of the Mueller investigation was created by the same intelligence officials who seem to have been on the “get Trump” firing line. Team Hillary just expanded it into an art form.
Back to the Mueller conclusions. On collusion, he seems to have cleared Trump, finding no basis to charge anyone on anything. But Mueller cleverly left the door open for Congress. He points out in the report that “collusion,” which has been the word the media has been tossing around, has no meaning in the law. The code refers to “conspiracy” — which is the coordination of more than one person with another to do bad stuff (and even then, “coordination” is not defined, either; it’s more a term of art) — and reminds us that he was constrained to prove conspiracy in order to brings charges, which is a higher bar than something like collusion.
The implication is that impeachment doesn’t really require a crime like conspiracy, and the amount of “contact” between Trump folks and Russia might form the basis for sufficient bad behavior and impeachment. Big time smoke exists; here’s the files. Have at it.
He went one better. In a glorified statement totally unworthy of a career justice official, Mueller also educates us in the report that an investigation is only as good as the information it has to work with. He tells us that a number (unnamed and uncounted) of the witnesses and participants in his reviews either pleaded the Fifth, destroyed documents before they could be subpoenaed, live beyond his jurisdiction, encrypted their data beyond the reach of his staff, or just flat-out lied to him and he couldn’t prove it.
Ergo, he did not have access to all the information he would have liked, and — ready for this? —if such information had been available, the conclusions of the report may have been different. And if frogs had wings… Take it from here, Congress. Maybe you will have better luck when you get these guys under the lights on a nationally televised hearing; addresses are in Appendix C.
Then it gets worse. In a total reversal of innocent until proven guilty, Mueller channeled his inner James Comey and refused to “exonerate” Trump on obstruction of justice considerations. What a cowardly dereliction of duty. The reason he was appointed was to decide whether to prosecute or not. Period. That’s what special counsels do and why they get the big bucks.
Mueller further muddied the waters by providing contradictory responses as to whether he was influenced not to charge Trump by DOJ guidelines stating that a sitting president can’t be indicted. The report says he was, implying that, absent the guidelines, he was all in to charge Trump, while William Barr insists that he asked Mueller the same question and was told it had no influence. At least Comey, in an equally unethical and unfair treatment of Hillary, decided not to charge.
I don’t think I would want to be the Democrat 2020 candidate demanding impeachment because Trump obstructed justice in the investigation of a crime that didn’t exist. I realize that there is a rare interpretation of that statute that might stretch that far, but for those with common sense who also vote, it doesn’t add up that you can obstruct “justice” when there is no “justice” on the line because there is no crime. Trump gave every document asked for, allowed every person asked for to be interviewed, never invoked executive privilege, and even garnered Mueller’s nod that at no time was his investigation impeded.
Trump may just have been really ticked off because he knew he was innocent and didn’t like how he and his friends/staff were being treated and how his administration was being impacted. I would, too, as would the vast majority of commonsense voters. Nevertheless, Mueller again played to his establishment base by listing 10 possible ways Trump could have obstructed justice. The problem with them all is that nothing happened! Even the most dicey one, wherein Trump supposedly asked his counsel to change testimony (Trump denies this is an accurate rendition), wound up in the “no harm, no foul” category. But maybe that was the whole point. Mueller knew early on that there was no collusion but kept going for another year or more.
Maybe the exercise was designed simply to goad Trump into doing something impeachable. And according to the report, it almost worked, but cooler heads prevailed and Trump listened to them. What we are left with is a blatantly political document that solves nothing and guarantees that more Trump investigations will be a mainstay of the Democrat platform.
So where do we go from here? Thanks to the Mueller roadmap, Democrats still have opportunities to persist in both the collusion and obstruction areas, and they will do so. The committee heads owe their political careers to efforts to dislodge Trump, and ego rules. Media fawning is addictive. The key Democrats folks are in safe seats, but the overall base and donor class are still demanding investigations, regardless of where they live. Ditto the impeachment crowd. The few Democrat adults in the room know this is political suicide, but they will not be able to control it, only perhaps downplay it a bit. But get ready for the investigation du jour, including piling on from the Southern District of New York regarding Trump taxes, business dealings, and charities.
One would think that a media that got it so disastrously wrong for two years would admit it, seek forgiveness, and move on to a different topic. But you would be wrong. The media is doubling down faster than the Democrats, grabbing at every Mueller straw and keeping hope alive. The extent to which the goalposts are being moved is hysterical, headed by James Clapper’s theory that proof of overt conspiracy was never the objective; it was always enough for Trump and his staff to be “unwitting” conspirators with Russia.
The sad fact is that the media business models over the last few years have left them nowhere to go. Their ratings have hung in there, but have become totally dependent on capturing an ever-higher percentage of the one percent of the audience in the true-believer category. The risk of shifting to fair and balanced is far too great. Too many careers rely on being at the extreme of the anti-Trump bandwagon.
The Trump/GOP position is a little more tricky. Trump’s personality and the perfectly reasonable reaction from Republicans cry out for revenge. The Trump administration and the country have been compromised and put through the wringer for over two years on a hoax, and getting even with those who perpetrated it is a normal human response. But they should be careful and smart. By all appearances, the origins of the probe go back to the Obama administration, with involvement right up to the top. But there is scant likelihood that smoking guns will be uncovered that point directly to the White House.
I think it was Napoleon who said that if you go to take Vienna, take Vienna. If the GOP aims at the top and can’t definitively prove it, the result will be political disaster, as it will be spun as an effort to tarnish the first black president. As unsatisfying as it may seem, the better course is to let the inspector general finger those who got over their skis and hold them accountable. Let Lindsey Graham conduct hearings to change the FISA and special-counsel processes to ensure that this never happens again, declare victory, and move on. The ultimate win is in November 2020, and Republicans should keep their eyes on the prize.
Interestingly, Democrats face a similar dilemma. If they take an impeachment run at Trump and lose, or even if they investigate further beyond what the commonsense voting majority can handle, they risk handing Trump 45 states and destroying any hope of congressional majorities. Trump listened to tempering voices before and won. Let’s hope for an instant replay. The Democrats? They won’t be able to help themselves.