Robert Mueller certainly looks as if he could use a rest. Give the man credit. There’s nothing more exhausting than trying to analyze the inner workings of Donald Trump’s mind.
The special counsel made a brief farewell address, after two years and a 448-page report. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” he told America.
That was the bottom line, a sort of vague double negative that wouldn’t work in the first grade:
“Bobby, did Sylvia pull the class bunny’s tail while I was out of the room?”
“Teacher, if I had had confidence that Sylvia clearly did not commit any infraction of the bunny rules, I would have said so.”
At that point, one would hope said teacher would write a letter to Bobby’s mom, expressing concern that the kid might grow up to be a self-protective weenie.
If Mueller’s speech had been accompanied by Real English subtitles, they’d have said something like: “Look, the guy obstructed justice, but you can’t charge a president with a crime while he’s in office. You’re gonna have to impeach him first.”
But there was no helpful translation. So you know what happened.
“The case is closed! Thank you,” tweeted the president, who magically interpreted Mueller’s statement as saying that “there was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.”
Try to imagine some other inhabitant of the White House responding to an investigation into whether he had been engaged in a deeply illegal cover-up. Wouldn’t you be a little suspicious if he referred to himself the way a defense lawyer might refer to a presumably guilty client?
Well, at least he didn’t say “Trump is innocent!” Those third-person speeches are getting a little weird.
When Mueller issued his very long report two months ago, the president responded with triumphant cries of “No collusion” and a vow to turn his attention to making the Republicans “the party of health care!” You can see how well that’s been going. Trump hasn’t even been able to make them the party of road repair.
But he’s still ... here. And Mueller, for all his warning bells about a president who you can’t say didn’t commit a crime, isn’t planning to be any further help. He made it pretty clear that if he’s forced to testify before a congressional committee, he’ll just point to his mammoth report. Anybody who wants to drive home the obstruction of justice issue might have to find some other former special counsel to help out.
The biggest message Mueller wanted to leave with the American public was a very loud howl about Russia’s attempts to undermine the American democratic system by hacking into the Clinton campaign computers and releasing private information that it stole there.
And it succeeded. A foreign power helped to throw the election to the candidate its leaders liked. It was exactly the sort of disaster the Founding Fathers would have pictured if their worst nightmares featured computers. They passed the Alien Sedition Act in 1798, noted historian H.W. Brands, “amid concern that French revolutionaries were trying to undermine the American Republic.”
Brands said that kind of worry was also what prompted the founders to require that all presidents be born in the United States. And Donald Trump fulfills that description to a T. The man may be a remorseless liar who has no interest whatsoever in any aspect of American democracy that doesn’t directly affect his own personal fortunes. But he’s from here. Think positive.
Trump hates to hear warnings about Russia, since they do sort of suggest that he truly lost the election. (Even as it was, all the Russian oligarchs and intelligence chiefs in the world weren’t effective enough to win him the popular vote.)
Kirstjen Nielsen, the recently axed homeland security secretary, ticked off our commander in chief when she started working on plans to guard against Russian interference in 2020. A senior administration official told Times reporters that Nielsen was warned it “wasn’t a great subject” to discuss in front of the president.
Trump did his own research, of course, by simply asking Vladimir Putin. (“He said he didn’t meddle. ... I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”) Later, when 13 Russian nationals were indicted for interfering in the election, the president just moved on to arguing that even if it happened, it didn’t really matter. (“The results of the election were not impacted.”)
But let’s get back to Mueller. What did you think about his address to the nation?
A) That was about a 448-page report, right? Didn’t totally focus. I was busy ... buying condiments for the pantry.
B) Thrilled to learn our president won’t be distracted by criminal charges while he’s in office.
C) Can’t we do something about the “while in office” part?
It’s been quite a ride. When Mueller became special counsel, a lot of us thought he’d wind up as a chapter in the history books of the future. Well, maybe at least an asterisk.