Ennui and the Mueller Report

The findings are a dispiriting Rorschach test.

“Rorschach Red” by Green Mamba is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Shortly after yesterday’s release of the redacted version of the Mueller report, journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted,

This should hardly be surprising. Given the team sports mentality that has increasingly come to characterize American politics, the bifurcated news environment that stokes it, and the particularly polarizing nature of Donald J. Trump, it was incredibly unlikely that a 448-page report full of legal nuance was going to change a lot of minds.

Of course George Conway was going to come away thinking “Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him.” He already thought that. That it ain’t gonna happen is immaterial.

Similarly, no one should be shocked that Glenn Greenwald thinks “Robert Mueller Did Not Merely Reject the Trump-Russia Conspiracy Theories. He Obliterated Them.” Sure, it’s untrue. But there’s ammunition for that viewpoint if you’re looking for it.

For those simply trying to understand what’s happening in the world around them, the report seems to have mostly evoked ennui.

NYT reporters Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman see “A Portrait of the White House and Its Culture of Dishonesty.”

Although the resulting two-year investigation ended without charges against Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller’s report painted a damning portrait of a White House dominated by a president desperate to thwart the inquiry only to be restrained by aides equally desperate to thwart his orders.

The White House that emerges from more than 400 pages of Mr. Mueller’s report is a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty — defined by a president who lies to the public and his own staff, then tries to get his aides to lie for him. Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to fire lieutenants who did not carry out his wishes while they repeatedly threatened to resign rather than cross lines of propriety or law.

At one juncture after another, Mr. Trump made his troubles worse, giving in to anger and grievance and lashing out in ways that turned advisers into witnesses against him. He was saved from an accusation of obstruction of justice, the report makes clear, in part because aides saw danger and stopped him from following his own instincts. Based on contemporaneous notes, emails, texts and F.B.I. interviews, the report draws out scene after scene of a White House on the edge.

At the New Yorker, Susan Glasser offers that “The Mueller Report Won’t End Trump’s Presidency, But It Sure Makes Him Look Bad.”

The appointment of Mueller did not lead to the end of Trump’s Presidency. Not yet, and probably not ever. The release of the special counsel’s report, on Thursday, showed that Mueller did not turn up conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy. But the report’s belated publication, almost four weeks to the day after Mueller submitted it to Attorney General William Barr, is hardly the “complete and total exoneration” that Trump initially claimed it was and that Barr misleadingly and incompletely portrayed to the country. We knew that wasn’t the case the minute Trump said it.

What we didn’t know until Thursday, when we finally saw the four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page document, is how much evidence Mueller had amassed about the President, panicked and in crisis mode, trying to shut down and block the investigation. The report documents ten different incidents that raise questions about the President’s behavior. Was it obstruction of justice? The Mueller report concluded (albeit in legalistic and unclear language) that that is a matter for Congress to decide. And Congress, as a matter of political calculation and senatorial math, remains unlikely to pursue the question to its bitter end.

At WaPo, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa see “Paranoia, lies and fear: Trump’s presidency laid bare by Mueller report.”

The moment President Trump learned two years ago that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russian election interference, he declared in the Oval Office, “This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump nearly made that a self-fulfilling prophecy as he then plotted for months to thwart the probe, spawning a culture of corruption and deception inside the White House.

Trump’s advisers rarely challenged him and often willingly did his bidding, according to the special counsel’s report released Thursday. But in some cases, they refused when Trump pushed them to the brink of committing outright crimes.

[…]

The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia, insecurity and scheming — and of an inner circle gripped by fear of Trump’s spasms. Again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record.

“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,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

Perhaps the most wistful is David Brooks, “It’s Not the Collusion, It’s the Corruption: What the Mueller report says about our world.” The column is rambling, stumbling around an argument without quite landing on one. It therefore defies excerpting but this piece gives you the gist:

We are being threatened in a very distinct way. The infrastructure of the society is under threat — the procedures that shape government, the credibility of information, the privacy rules that make deliberation possible. And though the Chinese government does not play a big role here, it represents a similar sort of threat — to our intellectual infrastructure, the intellectual property rights that organize innovation.
It is as if somebody is inserting acids into a body that eats away at the ligaments and the tendons.

These forces are motivated by self-interest, but their common feature is an operational nihilism. They are trying to sow disorder at the foundation of society. The goal is not really to convert anybody to a cause; it is to create cynicism and disruption that will open up the space to grab what you want to grab. They rig the system and then tell everybody, “The system is rigged!” And therefore, all values are suspended. Everything is permitted.

So it seems.

For critics of the President, myself included, the report is woefully unsatisfying. It catalogs a variety of misdeeds and attempts at collusion and obstruction, none of which quite amount to enough for a prudent man like Robert Mueller to recommend the indictment of the President of the United States.

Sure, Congress could impeach him, anyway, as it’s ultimately a political act. But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, rightly in my view, decided that pursuing Trump via that process simply isn’t worth it—especially given that it’s inconceivable that three-quarters of a majority-Republican Senate would vote to remove him from office. Trump would wind up vindicated and no other business would get done.

At the same time, only the most blinkered Trump supporters can see the result as a vindication. Falling just short of committing indictable crimes—and mostly because even hand-picked cronies wouldn’t carry out their orders to do so—is hardly the gold standard for Presidential conduct.

Even the most charitable reading of Mueller’s findings leaves a portrait of a man supremely unsuited for the highest office in the land. But he’ll continue to occupy it, with all the powers attached to it, for at least another 21 months.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Russia Investigation, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SenyorDave says:

    Trump clearly was never fit to be president. The Mueller report completely verifies that, and shows that at best, he appears to be compromised. Were he not president, he would have been indicted. The US is at risk with him as president for the next 19 months, and that assumes he will not be re-elected. He will do anything to be re-elected. It may be a political loser, but at the very least exploring impeachment seems appropriate. I don’t know exactly what the powers of the House are during impeachment, but the American people deserve a full transparent hearing that lays out exactly what Trump and his people have done.

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  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Hardly a Rorschach test. That’s just “both sides” hokum.
    The Dems have been largely vindicated; Conway has always been correct in that Dennison is indeed a cancer on the Presidency.
    On the other hand Republicans are being exposed as raging hypocrites who care more about their jobs, and the power they entail, than the rule of law…much less the country or the Republic.

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  3. I have to agree with @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I think “Rorschach Test” is the wrong metaphor, as it suggests that there is nothing in the report save what an observer brings. That suggests there is nothing empirically true about the report, which simply isn’t the case.

    I do agree, however, that it was always rather unlikely that the report would change the minds of dedicated partisans.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Over at Vanity Fair:

    Obviously, all this only added to the question of Donny’s legal liability. In fact, as the redacted report states, the special counsel’s office “considered whether to charge Trump Campaign officials with crimes in connection with the June 9 meeting.” But luckily for the president’s eldest son, he ended up getting off scot-free—not because he hadn’t done anything sketchy, but because Robert Mueller concluded he was too stupid to know what he was doing. Mueller writes:

    This series of events [surrounding the June 9 meeting] could implicate the federal election-law ban on contributions and donations by foreign nationals . . . Specifically, Goldstone passed along an offer purportedly from a Russian government official to provide “official documents and information” to the Trump campaign for the purposes of influencing the presidential election. Trump Jr. appears to have accepted that offer and to have arranged a meeting to receive those materials. Documentary evidence in the form of e-mail chains supports the inference that Kushner and Manafort were aware of that purpose and attended the June 9 meeting anticipating the receipt of helpful information to the Campaign from Russian sources.

    The Office considered whether this evidence would establish a conspiracy to violate the foreign contributions ban . . . solicitation of an illegal foreign-source contribution; or the acceptance or receipt of “an express or implied promise to make a [foreign-source] contribution” . . . There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a “thing of value” within the meaning of these provisions, but the Office determined that the government would not be likely to obtain and sustain a conviction for two other reasons: first, the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted “willfully,” i.e. with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct; and, second, the government would likely encounter difficulty proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of the promised information exceeded the threshold for a criminal violation.

    As to the first part, I had no idea that ignorance of the law was an excuse for rich, pampered, trust fund babies. (not to mention that Manafort, as a long time political operative, damn well knew it was against the law and the idea that he wouldn’t bring it up stretches incredulity beyond broken)

    As for the 2nd part, trump and company thought it was plenty valuable.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: In today’s party of trump, Republicans=Rico.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @Steven L. Taylor: Oh, I concur that there are objective facts in the report and, as I note in the OP, they’re just awful for Trump. But Ioffe is right that it doesn’t seem to matter: Trump supporters focus on the “vindication” and his critics point to all the ways in which it is not vindication.

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  6. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Trump supporters focus on the “vindication”

    Or they’ll take a cue from their leader’s tweets this morning and decide the entire thing is “bullshit” and “fake news” again.

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  7. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I too had no idea that ignorance of the law was an excuse for breaking it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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  8. Mikey says:

    @mattbernius: An old military buddy of mine was on Facebook talking about how Trump “always knew he was innocent” and the report just proves it.

    Cultism is a helluva drug.

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  9. Kit says:

    The vindication makes for rather weak sauce: the odd rumor proved baseless; some people were too ignorant to prosecute; the law raised the hoop high and felt it couldn’t promise an in-your-face dunk. And then there was the whole issue of whether it is even within the purview of the DoJ to prosecute a sitting President. The other 400+ pages landed merciless body blows.

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  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:

    Trump supporters focus on the “vindication” and his critics point to all the ways in which it is not vindication.

    Granted, but you type that as though both sides are mis-guided.
    The supporters are absolutely wrong; the report IS NOT VINDICATION.
    The so-called critics are absolutely correct; the report IS NOT VINDICATION.
    From the Lawfareblog:

    But the cries of vindication do not survive even the most cursory examination of the document itself.

    One side is proceeding with blinders on and gulping the kool-aid, and the other is viewing the facts.
    These two things are in no way comparable, so stop comparing them.

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  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @CSK:

    I too had no idea that ignorance of the law was an excuse for breaking it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Trust me…if it were you or me, we’d be in jail by night-fall.

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  12. Scott F. says:

    It catalogs a variety of misdeeds and attempts at collusion and obstruction, none of which quite amount to enough for a prudent man like Robert Mueller to recommend the indictment of the President of the United States.

    James, I don’t think it’s prudence that kept Mueller from recommending indictment, but an obligation to the DoJ policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted. And in his report, Mueller states that because he couldn’t charge and try Trump per policy, he was therefore obligated to not make “a formal public accusation akin to an indictment” in his report.

    This section read to me like a plea from Mueller for Congress to do what he couldn’t by policy. Congress must make as much of this as they can in hearings.

    You’re right that impeachment won’t clear the Senate. But, every Republican must be put in a position to support or renounce Trump, on the record, in the coming months. Then whichever way they choose, they must be forced to own their stance during the upcoming elections.

    In some places in the country, a stance supporting Trump may be a positive. But, daily demands to defend his corruption will be weakening to most.

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  13. Kathy says:

    Human capacity for self-delusion knows no bounds.

    According to Woodward and Bernstein in their book “The Final Days,” an account of the long death of Nixon’s presidency, Nixon regarded the very tape that served as a smoking gun, as fully exculpatory. to any impartial observer, though, ti was clear Nixon was not only organizing a cover-up, but also setting up the cover story.

    So when we get, “trump’s team wanted to coordinate with Russia, but were too stupid to do it,” the deplorables read “NO COLLUSION!!1!!”

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden

    Admissible evidence? WTF did the intelligence investigation find?

    And apparently if you’re a member of the swamp ignorance of the law IS a defense.

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  15. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    A separate question: Do you still feel Barr wouldn’t misrepresent in his initial memo to Congress knowing the report would become public? Because, it seems to me he was misrepresenting in his press conference just as it was becoming public.

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  16. Guarneri says:

    LOL

    After reading the blogpost, and comments, go with the Rorschach test.

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  17. Paul L. says:

    You guys claimed Trump was finished after the Cohen raid.
    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/trump-freaks-out-over-raid-on-his-lawyers-office/#comment-2298136
    What happened?

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  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Paul L.:

    What happened?

    Rubes like you and Guarneri

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  19. Paul L. says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I had no idea that ignorance of the law was an excuse for rich, pampered, trust fund babies. (not to mention that Manafort, as a long time political operative, damn well knew it was against the law and the idea that he wouldn’t bring it up stretches incredulity beyond broken)

    You do know about Qualified Immunity where if a Government employee can claim they did not know about they were violating someone’s civil rights they can violate someone’s civil rights without consequence.
    Cops and Order GOP have no problem with that “Rule of Law”
    Amusing to see BuzzFeed and McClatchy now walk back their Cohen stories.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    For critics of the President, myself included, the report is woefully unsatisfying. It catalogs a variety of misdeeds and attempts at collusion and obstruction, none of which quite amount to enough for a prudent man like Robert Mueller to recommend the indictment of the President of the United States.

    I think you’re misreading that section. Mueller was restricted by the DOJ policy that you cannot indict a president. He documented many occurrences of people refusing Trump’s orders to obstruct justice, and noted the reason that they weren’t charged was that they refused. Mueller laid out the case for either impeachment on obstruction of justice, or prosecution when he is out of office.

  21. JKB says:

    You can cling to this:

    Donald Trump committed unprecedented-cooperation-with-the-investigation “obstruction of justice” without corrupt intent while talking smack on social media

    And take comfort that perhaps impeachment will be possible during Trump’s second term. Of course, in the meantime, many in and around DC are probably having fitful sleep as they await the consequences of the DOJ and IG investigations into how this political use of the agencies came about. Bureaucracies have no loyalty, except to their own continuation, and these bureaucracies need to publicly clear out their bad actors if they hope to recover. That means “predicated” is going to become a commonly heard word in relation to the use of the FBI and other agencies to spy on a political campaign.

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  22. mike shupp says:

    The lesson I’ve learned from the Mueller report (and the Comey song and dance on Hilary Clinton’s emails): There should never again be a Mueller report. If you’ve got an indication that a political candidate is corrupt, lying, or otherwise unsuitable for office, make that point IMMEDIATELY; demand an IMMEDIATE inquest or trial even in the middle of the campaign; NEVER spend two years letting partisans entrench themselves in falsehoods.

    Alternatively, raise up Brutuses prepared to take our coming Caesars.

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  23. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @JKB:

    use of the FBI and other agencies to spy on a political campaign.

    1. You are confusing spying with investigating.
    2. Who, exactly, are you suggesting “used” the FBI to do anything?
    You sycophants are fuqing hilarious. I can only imagine if a Clinton or an Obama had done one tiny fraction of what Mueller has found that Dennison did. Yet you douche-fuqs are ready to put a comb-over on Mt. Rushmore. Seriously…what is your favorite flavor of kool-aid?

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  24. Mikey says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I can only imagine if a Clinton or an Obama had done one tiny fraction of what Mueller has found that Dennison did.

    Clinton did do one tiny fraction of what Trump has done. The Republicans impeached him.

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  25. Steve V says:

    @JKB: Ok so if the investigation was politically motivated, that means you think everything that happened in 2016 was totally ok and political campaigns should do what the Trump people did?

    So, in 2020, if offered assistance from a foreign country, like China, the Democratic nominee should welcome it, saying “I love it”?

    The Democratic campaign should pass along its polling data to a Chinese agent?

    It should coordinate with a hacker group (that is helping China out) to drop bad info about the Republican campaign at various points during the campaign?

    Dozens of people who work for the campaign should deny ever talking with anyone in any way connected to China, and none of it should be investigated despite their numerous, clearly false denials?

    What are the rules now?

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  26. @Guarneri: As ever, I marvel at your trenchant and incisive commentary.

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  27. MEpton says:

    So much of the Rorschach quality seems to come from measuring the report against what an individual wants from the government and how they think the government should operate.

    If a person thinks the administration should be a group of Publius’s angels on exactly the same page, then the report shows an group far off the mark. But if a person believes an administration should be a collection of individuals with different minds providing checks on each other, then the report showed something operating about as they expected.

    There are vastly different ideas about how the US government should and can work. From there, people holding those very divergent views will have very divergent reactions as the Mueller report does and doesn’t stand up to their expectations.

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  28. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @JKB:
    @Guarneri:
    Hey, Red Hats…
    After years of whining about Clintons emails why so quiet about Dennison personel using personal email, deleting communications, not keeping records as required by law, encrypted communications, etc? Your hypocrisy is awe-inspiring. Your credibility, non-existent.

  29. Gustopher says:

    Elizabeth Warren has taken the Rorschach test and sees a constitutional duty for the House to begin impeachment proceedings.

    I do wonder what a trial in the Senate would do to the Democratic Primary, as roughly half of all Democratic Senators are running for President, and half the field of potential nominees are in the Senate. Ok, very roughly. But a lot.

  30. Gustopher says:

    @CSK:

    I too had no idea that ignorance of the law was an excuse for breaking it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    That is baffling, and I cannot imagine that this was the original intent of the law in question. The George Castanza defense of “Was that wrong?” really has no place in a courtroom.

    And too many laws require showing an intent, or an explicit quid pro quo.

    @Paul L.: Qualified immunity requires good faith, and only covers law enforcement and some government employees. Neither good faith nor government employee have anything to do with the Trump campaign.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @Steve V:

    What are the rules now?

    The rule hasn’t changed: It’s ok if you’re a Republican.

    It’s the alternative approach to the Democrats’ circular firing squad.

    Bill Clinton chats with Loretta Lynch at an airport, Republicans howl, and Democrats concede that there is an appearance of impropriety, and that justice should be beyond reproach, so Lynch is pressured into recusing herself.

    The Trump campaign has 130 contacts with agents of a foreign power that is seeking to influence our elections, hands over internal polling data, and coordinates with a third party intermediary… Democrats howl, and Republicans claim it is fake news, that it was only 129 and if you can’t distinguish between an AR-15 and an AK-47 you have no business discussing abortion and that’s why Hillary Clinton killed Seth Rich and it’s all Fake News.

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  32. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Was what Guarneri said supposed to mean something? Oh. I thought he was just trying to riff and failing at it again. My mistake. Carry on!

  33. dazedandconfused says:

    On obstruction Barr said Mueller didn’t see enough to indict. My reading is he clearly stated he did, but cited the Office of Legal Council’s opinion as the reason he did not.

    When Mueller sits before Congress I imagine someone will be bright enough to ask him if, had this been anyone else but a POTUS, he would’ve recommended indictment for obstruction.

    That should clear the ink blot up a bit.

  34. DrDaveT says:

    @MEpton:

    But if a person believes an administration should be a collection of individuals with different minds providing checks on each other, then the report showed something operating about as they expected.

    As usual, I can count on a drive-by commenter here to provide a much-needed belly laugh after a hard week of work. Totally awesome. Yes, certainly, this administration is a model of independent thought, checks, and balances…