The Mueller report is finally in the public eye – or at least, most of it is – and it has turned Twitter into a parody of Talmudic scholarship. Journalists, academics, trolls and everyone else spent the day trading references to it, chapter and verse. At just under 450 pages, the report is biblical in scale and ambiguity; it allows for broad interpretation.
Trump – via the helpful narrative-shaping “prebuttal” of his attorney-general, Bill Barr – found plenty in it to justify crowing “Game Over.” Barr, playing flack, gave a press conference an-hour-and-a-half before he made the report public, restating his view that the report exonerated the president. Adding to his four-page written summary from last week, he said the report had found “no evidence of collusion” between Trump and Russia during the campaign.
Barr reiterated that while Mueller declined to make a prosecutorial recommendation either way on the question of obstruction of justice, he had no such compunction: his Department of Justice didnt believe the evidence presented reached a prosecutable level. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general who initiated the report two years ago, stood behind Barr as he spoke, wide-eyed, looking frozen in terror.
Barr had a 90-minute advantage in the battle for control of the narrative, but when the report finally dropped it was soon clear there was plenty of material for theologians looking for other interpretations. Sure, theres 2:7: “Unlike cases in which the subject engages in obstruction of justice to cover up a crime, the evidence we obtained did not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
But, the Maimonides of Twitter cried, what about 2:157: “But proof of such a crime is not an element of an obstruction offense … obstruction of a criminal investigation is punishable even if … the investigation ultimately reveals no underlying crime”. This kind of thing went on all day.
At times, especially reading the reports difficult second volume – the part dealing with possible obstruction of justice – it felt like Mueller had decided, rather than make a decision, just to share his whole internal debate. The contrast between Muellers dense prose and Trumps bombastic vacuity caused cognitive dissonance. The planets were colliding: Muellers black-and-white world of laws and truth plummeted toward Trumps grey, murky world of lies. The two could not coexist.
Could Mueller really have not realised how this gargantuan document would be summarised, warped beyond recognition, by Trumpworld? The hopeful, at least, found comfort in the hints at other, as yet unknown investigations. Was that the plan? Or is Mueller, like everyone else, only human; fallible, and prone to missing the obvious?
“The presidents efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” Mueller notes, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” Thats wild!
Repeatedly, Mueller describes how Trumps attempts to obstruct justice were frustrated by his staff declining to enact his orders. Chris Christie, for example, declined to pass on a message to then-FBI director James Comey from Trump pressuring him to stop investigating national security adviser Mike Flynn. Later, Trump asked Christie if he should fire Mueller, and Christie advised against it.
Trump didnt take Christies advice; in June 2017, he called White House counsel Don McGahn and ordered him to order Rosenstein to fire the special counsel. McGahn, Mueller reports, was “perturbed by the call” and “did not carry out the instruction.” He prepared to resign, telling then-chief of staff Reince Priebus that the president was asking him to do “crazy shit”.
If that sounds like obstruction of justice to you, it does to me too. But according to Muellers interpretation, he doesnt have the legal standing to make a call one way or another, whatever the evidence, against a sitting president. Having determined not to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the question of guilt becomes moot. But he hints at the conclusion he might have reached in different circumstances: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” he writes. In short: Trump didnt not do it.
He also concludes “that Congress can validly make obstruction-of-justice statutes applicable to corruptly motivated official acts of the president without impermissibly undermining his Article II functions.” Some inferred from this and similar references that the report is, effectively, a call to action from the legislature, even for impeachment – but if it is, it is never spelled out.
Mueller wrestles with the obstruction of justice question. “Three features of this case render it atypical compared to … heartland obstruction-of-justice prosecutions,” he writes. “First, the conduct involved action by the president.” That meant that, while some of Trumps conduct “raises garden-variety obstruction-of-justice issues,” others have graver constitutional ramifications. “A factual analysis of that conduct would have to take into account that the presidents acts were facially lawful,” he writes. In short: in some cases, if the president does it, its legal.
The report is full of juicy details. When Mueller was first appointed, he notes, Trump – informed by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions – “slumped back in his chair and said, Oh my god. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. Im fucked.” Then, Trump “lambasted” Sessions, saying “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” and informing Sessions this was “the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
In another detail that would be jaw-dropping in any more normal era, Mueller writes that press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “told the press after Comeys termination that the White House had heard from countless FBI agents who had lost confidence in Comey.” But, Mueller continues, “the evidence does not support those claims … and Sanders acknowledged toRead More – Source