This could be a very short blog entry this week, because I can summarize Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated Congressional testimony succinctly:
The former special counsel delivered exactly the kind of circumspect performance he had promised, the Republicans set their hair on fire trying to discredit him, the Democrats didn’t really get the viral moment they wanted, and the media obsessed over superficialities like a bunch of teenagers on Snapchat.
None of which changes an iota of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors or his manifest unfitness for office, as scrupulously detailed in the SCO’s 448-page report.
OK, see you next week…..
Just kidding. As regular readers of The King’s Necktie know, neither “very short” nor “succinctly” are in my vocabulary. So let’s get into it.
BEST BEACH READING FOR SUMMER 2019
Let’s start with the most sidesplittingly hilarious thing I read all week. It comes from a Mr. Donald J. Trump, 73, of Washington DC, who writes (on Twitter):
“I completely read the entire Mueller Report, and do you know what I concluded after reading both Volume 1 and Volume 2? There is no there there. NO THERE THERE! We completely wasted everybody’s time and taxpayer’s money.”
I am more ready to believe that Sharon Stone was on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour in 1975 than I am to believe that Donald Trump read ANY of the Mueller report, let alone the entire thing.
(Oh wait, maybe he did, as he wrote that he “completely read” it, “both Volume 1 and Volume 2.” Because when you really did something you always need to stress it with defensive qualifiers.)
But Donald Trump is not alone, as most Americans—including most members of Congress—have not read the report.
For those who have, and who understand what it represents, the hope with Mr. Mueller’s testimony was that the movie would be a bigger splash than the book, as the tedious metaphor went. But even those hopeful folks went into the event with very very modest expectations, given the byzantine complexity of the facts that required elucidating, Mueller’s famous cautiousness, and his well-known aversion to partisan slugfests.
Those low expectations were met.
I say that with all due respect to all involved. Anyone still banking on Robert Mueller to step out of a phone booth wearing a red cape and save the republic is sadly deluded, as well as abdicating their own responsibility in that effort. He told us beforehand he was going to be painfully cautious and stick to what was already in the report, one that Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes aptly called “a devastating indictment of the president’s mendacity and a challenge to the national conscience.” That’s not enough? Now you’re surprised that he turned out to be a buttoned-down “just-the-facts, ma’am” G-man?
Writing in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick noted that “dragging an unwilling witness into a polemical hearing was never going to go well.” If Democrats are unhappy with yesterday’s results, they have only themselves to blame for not mounting a more aggressive prosecution of the president’s crimes on their own thus far, and instead putting it all on Bob Mueller.
The case for Trump’s impeachment—far more damning than Richard Nixon’s—has already been laid out in spades. That the Donald is not already back at Mar-a-Lago strategizing with Giuliani, Dershowitz, and his other lawyers ahead of his impending criminal trials (and waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days at Epstein’s) is a testament only to the toxic state of partisan politics in the USA of the late Teens…..and the overwhelming focus on the “optics” of Mueller’s testimony rather than its substance only further proves the point.
I am reminded of the 1992 vice presidential debate, when third party candidate Ross Perot’s running mate, retired US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale, became a national punchline for his unorthodox, slightly doddering performance against Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale was a Medal of Honor winner, fighter pilot, prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than seven years, three-star flag officer, and a classics scholar and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Yet this brilliant, accomplished, heroic patriot was mocked by comparison with two professional mannequins for committing what the comedian Dennis Miller said was “the worst sin in American life: he was bad on television.” (This was back when Miller was still funny, and had not yet turned into a right wing troll himself. These days, as a Trump superfan, he would be more likely to be among those snickering at Stockdale, or Mueller.)
We have not come very far in 27 years. In fact, we may have lost ground. My DVR identified the broadcast of the hearings, all seven hours of it, as “Mueller Testifies,” like it was a new Netflix show. The snide reviews are what passes for serious political dialogue in Trump’s America, where ratings are everything, Cabinet officers get chosen because they look the part, and life has become nothing but a nightmare reality show with a sociopathic ignoramus as host. It’s no surprise that this is not a world in which a man like Robert Swan Mueller III thrives.
The good news is that, just 24 hours after Mueller’s testimony, there is already a backlash about this obsession with style over substance. (That’s how fast the news cycle moves today.) On Twitter, former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett slapped down NBC’s Chuck Todd by saying: “When you say ‘on optics, this was a disaster’ it is you saying so that helps make it true. The disaster of the optics is the elevation of optics and the claim by pundits that it was a disaster.”
Somewhere, the late Jim Stockdale—may he rest in peace—is smiling.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Short of an explosive moment that few expected, Mueller’s testimony was never going to be a massive gamechanger, and it wasn’t. Both sides played to played to their respective bases, reaffirming their own positions for their own audiences, which was not an exercise likely to result in tectonic shifts in calcified public opinion. If it didn’t give the Democrats a bloody shirt to wave as they march toward impeachment, neither did it give the GOP their desperately sought closure to proper investigation of Donald Trump’s life of crime. So merrily we roll along much as we did before.
This is not to say that both sides made an equally strong case. The Democrats may have tried to get Mueller to stand up and yell “J’accuse!,” but they did not traffic in falsehoods and fairy tales. By contrast, the Republicans put on a shameful display of theatrical character assassination, gaslighting, and outright lies, much of it specifically designed to please Donald J. Trump and excuse and defend his actions as he seeks re-election.
If the consensus of the mediarati is that the Republican effort carried the day, what does that say about America?
Of course, the right wing perspective is precisely the opposite in terms of who was spinning fairy tales. But that relativistic attempt to create a false equivalence is the very point here. The right would like us to believe that this is a “he said / she said” situation. But consider this analogy:
Two people are arguing about the shape of the earth. One says it’s round, the other that it’s flat. The second person claims that his argument deserves to be treated with equal seriousness, and that the first individual’s insistence otherwise is the height of arrogance.
The flat-earther’s argument is either ignorant or dishonest, but one thing it indisputably isn’t, is true.
For the Democrats, the point in calling Mueller to testify was not to try to influence MAGA Nation—we learned long ago that they are far too far gone (too far). The point was to put on live TV pertinent facts about Trump’s behavior (“I’m fucked”) that the US public largely does not know. That display might not sway anyone in a red hat, but it might at least explode the myth that the special counsel’s report “totally and completely” exonerated him. (Jerry Nadler got the ball rolling by getting Mr. Mueller to say that very bluntly and explicitly in answer to the very first question, one of three key queries former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal had suggested). And that was well worth doing, since we recently learned that some Trump supporters apparently thought the SCO report had not a discouraging word to say about our Dear Leader, based on what we saw at a Justin Amash rally in Michigan last May.
The point was to rob the GOP of its false talking points and undermine its ability to misrepresent the findings of the special counsel in the only court that matters right now, that of public opinion, both for the 2020 presidential campaign and possible impeachment. Of course, Trump and the Republicans will continue to lie about it regardless, but it helps to be able to definitively call out their dishonesty.
As the morning rolled on, “No one is above the law” was the Democrats’ obvious mantra. (Trump’s, meanwhile, is “I am.”) They also repeatedly said, “If any other person in America did this…..” The Democrats also stressed Mueller’s credentials again and again, especially his decorated service as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, a trope designed to undercut Republican attempts to smear him to a military-adoring Fox audience.
And what of the GOP? Given the millions of eyeballs watching at home (and the two in the White House), many of the Republican congressmen appeared to be blatantly auditioning for jobs in the administration and/or right wing media, which is kind of the same thing.
With their usual world-beating hypocrisy, they insulted and scolded Mueller for not explicitly recommending impeachment if he thought it was indicated, even as we all know they would have crucified him if he had done so, as it was not within his remit.
They worked in a lot of their favorite verbiage, such as references to “socialists” and “spying” by the FBI. Rep. Ken Buck [R-CO] seemed to score an own goal by getting Mueller to reiterate on national television that Trump can be charged with obstruction once he is out of office.
Especially prominent among their myriad distortions, falsehoods, and outright lies were tales of how Trump allegedly “cooperated fully” with an investigation that he relentlessly attacked, refused to be interviewed for, and illegally tried to shut down. Indeed, several House Republicans actively praised Trump for not firing Mueller, which is like giving your dog a scooby snack for not eating your toddler.
But as my friend Justin Schein points out, the irony is that if Trump had fired Mueller—which he explicitly wanted to do, and tried mightily to do—he probably would have been impeached already. But his team knew that and stopped him (especially Don McGahn, who threatened to resign rather than carry out Trump’s orders), thus saving him from himself. But as we all know, attempts at obstruction do not have to be carried out in order to be illegal.
Oh, and not for nothing, but no Republican denied Trump had committed any of these acts: the best they could do was try to distract our attention from them, or pretend it was all fine.
Which leads us to the fundamental dilemma at the heart of Mueller’s appearance. Ultimately the Democrats were in a no-win situation, at least in terms of hoping this hearing would be a decisive turning point. Even if Mr. Mueller delivered a scathing indictment of Trump, the GOP would simply, sleazily claim it was part of a partisan witchhunt, the very tactic they have taken from the moment he was appointed. They did that even as it was, viciously so, with Mueller calmly sitting there delivering a dispassionate, painfully even-handed review of his investigation that in no possible way could be construed as biased toward the Democratic side. Yet the Republicans also claimed that his testimony vindicated them (much as Trump himself hailed the SCO report both as a baseless witchhunt and as “total and complete exoneration”).
Their willingness to slander a dedicated, lifelong public servant was astonishing. In the New Yorker John Cassidy writes:
In today’s GOP….decades of loyal public service count for nothing when the leader and his henchmen decide someone represents a threat and the apparatchiks have been ordered to take that person down. All that matters is carrying out the order and staying in the leader’s good graces. That isn’t congressional oversight. It is scorched-earth politics of a kind that is entirely antithetical to the notion of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution.
So let the GOP flog its alterative facts. History will render its judgment on what we witnessed yesterday, and when it does, I am confident the conduct of the Republican members of these committees will be remembered like that of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era—which is to say, as one of the most despicable episodes in modern US political history.
You heard it here first.
INTELLIGENCE, SUCH AS IT IS
Ironically, the Democrats may have gained more ground, public opinion-wise, in the second half of the day, with the Intelligence Committee, even though it dealt with events for which Trump faces no criminal exposure. They likely expected the opposite, which surely was why they had the committee hearings in that order, addressing Volume 2 of the Mueller report, which concerns the coverup, before Volume 1, which concerns the underlying crime of conspiracy with Russia. (Or it may have been mere scheduling; who knows?)
But that surprise speaks to how successfully the White House and GOP have muddied the waters on obstruction. When it comes to that question, millions of Fox-watching Americans now do nothing more than shrug over what they routinely dismiss—when they acknowledge them at all—as mere “process crimes.” (The way pulling the trigger is mere “process” in shooting someone dead, I guess.)
By contrast, and irrespective of criminal charges, the House Democrats made a strong impression by detailing the laundry list of Trump’s unconscionable acts in regard to Russia that he needed to hide in the first place, from his lies about Trump Tower Moscow, to his vulnerability to blackmail, to his habit of meeting with Putin in secret, kissing his butt cheeks, and then destroying any notes documenting their tryst.
As Neal Katyal noted, Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) led off strongly by getting Mueller to firmly agree on five successive points in a rapid fire sequence tailor-made for the evening news:
- That Russia interfered in the election
- That it did so to help Trump and defeat Clinton
- That the Trump campaign welcomed the help (and did not report it)
- That Don Jr expressed in writing that he “loved it”
- And—PS—that Trump Sr. was seeking to make money from Russia in the Trump Tower Moscow scheme
It is worth noting that all the House Republicans yesterday appeared to (at least tacitly) accept the reality of that Russian interference…..yet not one of them acknowledged that Trump himself does not—a rather glaring disconnect. But the Republicans don’t acknowledge it because the dirty little fact is that Russian efforts help not just Trump but all of them, by extension.
(Mitch sure understands that.)
As a final note on the intel side, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi, now often seen on MSNBC, caught something I haven’t heard anyone else mention. In answer to a question from Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-CA), Mueller seemed to reveal that the FBI is STILL investigating the extent to which Trump is compromised by Russia—as well it should be. If that is correct, that is a remarkable revelation. (On that point, it’s worth wondering if Mueller handed off the CI aspect of his inquiry in order to shield it from the kind of political interference and grandstanding that we witnessed regarding the criminal investigation piece.)
EAT A PEACH
Mueller had not even gotten up from is chair at 3:59pm Eastern time when the media—right, center, and even the left, for the most part—collectively concluded that the air has gone out of the impeachment effort as a result of the day’s events. (This one from the WaPo’s Dan Balz is typical.)
But making the case for impeachment was never Robert Mueller’s job: I think he made that abundantly clear in the 448 pages of his report, in his May 29 press conference, and all day yesterday. It was a fundamental error to cast him in that role and to bank so much on it. (Preet Bharara had already noted Mueller’s well-known distaste for partisan politics during his previous 89 trips to testify on the Hill, and his desire to be neither a “pawn nor a piñata.”)
As Andrew Egger writes in the Bulwark:
The Robert Mueller who showed up Wednesday was neither party’s caricature of him: Not the duplicitous, Trump-deranged witch-hunter bedeviled by much of the right, not the messianic, giant-slaying #Resistance hero adored by much of the left. Rather, he was just the dowdy old lawyer and public servant who was called on to do a crazily difficult and controversial task, and did it as best he could with the least possible amount of drama or fuss. That was the Robert Mueller we needed, and the Robert Mueller we got. Don’t blame him if we can’t handle the rest.
Predictably, late night comics had a field day, although they were also surprisingly sympathetic to his plight, more so than many so-called serious commentators, perhaps attesting to the comedian’s natural incisiveness. (Comics 1, Pundits 0.) Several of them laid the blame—as Dahlia Lithwick did—on those who wanted the former special counsel to be something he isn’t and do something he didn’t want to do. Trevor Noah joked that Mueller was “like the world’s least cooperative audio book”:
“Chapter One: You know what? You know how to read. Go get the book. Read it yourself”….
The guy spent two years writing up an incredibly thorough document and now people are badgering him with questions he’s already answered. It would be like if Jesus came back and then we spent hours asking him to explain stuff that was in the Bible.
Samantha Bee quipped:
You have everything you need to decide the question ‘Should Donald Trump be impeached?’ and the answer is, yes, yes, he should. We don’t need to force the world’s grumpiest law daddy to read between the lines of his report when you could just read the lines.
In the right wing media, the cackling was just as gleeful but less kind and far less funny, and again focused purely on the entertainment value—which is not surprising, since the substantive part of what the special counsel said (and wrote) makes the right wing look pretty goddam awful. Charlie Sykes again nailed it, saying: “The GOP chortling is distasteful precisely because it ignores the gravity of what Mueller told the nation yesterday.”
Even more than the general public’s or that of the mainstream media, the Republican fixation on the performative aspect of Mueller’s testimony has an insidious subtext, which is to undermine the content of his remarks, and to create the delusion that he found nothing amiss in Team Trump. But the idea that there is no longer any merit to impeachment is a Republican fantasy and con job they are trying to sell to their colleagues across the aisle, and to the American people.
I’m here to tell you: don’t believe the hype.
It may have been a tactical mistake for Democrats to pin so much on Mueller’s appearance, even as they tried to tamp down expectations, but that hardly means we ought to forget what Trump did or give him a pass. Russiagate and the subsequent coverup and obstruction of its investigation should have already been a presidency-ending scandal, but the GOP has managed to deflect it with wanton dishonesty, lack of principle, and tribalist contempt for the rule of law and democracy full stop. They have so clouded the issue that, tragically, it fails to register with a sufficient segment of the American people.
In that sense, the Mueller testimony was a microcosm of our entire national dilemma: quiet, principled, almost agonizingly dry recitation of the facts gets shouted down by angry, dishonest hysterics in the service of lies and demagoguery. It was the perfect example of the old saw that a lie goes round the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots.
That axiom has gotten a hellacious workout in the Trump era.
But I must say: wasn’t it nice not to have Russiagate on the front burner for the past few weeks? In the interval between the release of the redacted report and yesterday’s testimony, we had the focus on things like concentration camps on the border, and migrant children caged in squalor so Stephen Miller could get an erection: atrocities that genuinely seemed to galvanize many Americans to oppose this administration. It feels like a step backward to return into the morass of legalese that the GOP has succeeded in turning the Russia investigation into.
I am not of the Glenn Greenwald school that says the Russia investigation is a pointless distraction. It is anything but. Foreign interference in our elections is a grave national security threat (I know, I know: Allende etc), and Trump’s complicity in it—passive or otherwise—is an unprecedented horror. However, I do recognize that it is not really gaining a lot of traction in terms of shifting public opinion toward removing Trump from office. It should, of course, but it hasn’t. So going forward, can we walk and chew gum simultaneously and hammer this cretin both on his compromise by Putin AND his neo-fascism since taking office?
I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Mueller hearing; per above, its public perception and impact has already changed and will likely continue to do so.
Meanwhile, the battle for the soul of this nation continues.
In today’s lightning fast news cycle, the sheer anti-climax of Mueller’s testimony is precisely why it will be ancient history by the time I finish typing this. If the case against Donald Trump is going to be made, it will have to be made by Congressional committees and Democratic presidential candidates. (Anticipating dishonest Republican bleating that “the case is closed” and we ought to “move on,” Schiff ended the day by calmly explaining why—and what—Mueller has left for Congress to investigate.)
We must carry on with the effort to remove this toxic pretender to the presidential throne by every legal means possible. We must not let our ardor flag with the inevitable twists and turns of the fight. We must never let the American people forget about his unfitness for office, his appallingly immoral, destructive, un-American—and in many cases illegal—acts, or the damage he is doing to our country and the world. Our effort is made harder by the complexity of the issues, and the sinister disinformation effort by the GOP to obscure Trump’s guilt, but we can’t let that deter us. On the contrary: those challenges demand even more determination and tenacity.
We are now in the early stages of what is already a brutal and divisive presidential election that promises only to get much much worse before it’s done. It may get so ugly that we look back fondly on the 2016 campaign as kinder and gentler times. November 2020 may mark the final nail in the coffin of American democracy, or it may see the overdue ejection of a man who never had any business sitting in the Oval Office to begin with, a crippling blow to the reprehensible party that birthed him, and the beginning of a long, slow rebuilding. But this much is for sure:
We stand no chance of winning if we don’t go into it fighting with every fiber of our being.
Photo: Robert S. Mueller III as a US Marine Corps lieutenant, ca 1969