White House

The Mueller Report Offers Little in Black and White

A monitor shows then-FBI director Robert Mueller during testimony on Capitol Hill in 2013. (Reuters file photo: Larry Downing)
The special counsel resisted both the demonization of Team MAGA and the flattery of Team Resistance and simply did his job.

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we live in a time when everything is supposed to be black and white. The weird, incestuous relationship between the media and the political parties incentivizes combatants to take positions on the one-yard lines, if not in the end zones. But what if — and bear with me for a moment — the truth is a lot grayer?

Consider the Mueller report and all the controversies that swirl around it. From where I sit, everyone (with the exception of Robert Mueller himself) comes out looking worse than their loudest supporters claim but better than their shrillest detractors insist.

President Trump is the most obvious example. By now, anyone interested has either read or heard summaries of the Mueller report, so I won’t get deep in the weeds. Any fair reading shows that it’s far from the “total and complete exoneration” Trump and his supporters claim. But it does exonerate Trump of many of the most extreme accusations bandied about on cable TV and in op-ed pages over the last two years.

According to Mueller, as well as Attorney General Bob Barr and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the president didn’t coordinate — a more precise term than “collude” — with the Russian government in the 2016 campaign. He did behave badly. He welcomed Russia’s efforts and praised WikiLeaks (a useful dump for Russia-acquired dirt on Hillary Clinton). In fact, his campaign may have coordinated with WikiLeaks. It’s possible Trump or his lieutenants may even have wanted to work with the Russians but were too incompetent to do it.

That’s bad. I would even argue it’s outrageous. But it’s not what countless Democrats and anti-Trump journalists claimed or hoped for.

Moreover, Trump may have acted like he was guilty of something, but evidence for the thing he was supposed to be guilty of couldn’t be found. It’s not outlandish to think that some of his suspicious behavior stemmed from anger at being wrongly accused and ignorance about how to properly conduct himself.

As for the obstruction charges. Reasonable people can conclude that Trump wanted, and almost certainly tried, to obstruct the probe. Some of his behavior would be illegal if he weren’t the president. But he is. And the legal arguments invoked by Barr and Mueller for letting him off the hook from criminal prosecution aren’t as absurd as many claim.

That brings us to the attorney general. Barr’s reputation took a hit when he opted to pre-spin the report’s findings in such a favorable light. But the claims that he’s disgraced himself don’t give enough consideration to the serious legal, constitutional and even political issues at play. Perhaps such spin was the embarrassing price he had to pay to get Trump to agree to the report’s release?

The executive branch should not serve as a de facto impeachment committee of the legislative branch. Barr believes the president cannot be indicted for exercising his constitutional powers, and he cites the standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. You can disagree with that, but the claim that Barr is part of a cover-up is unfair. What kind of “cover-up” involves releasing the actual report with few redactions? Barr’s positions on the legal and constitutional issues were well known when he was confirmed, and while controversial in this partisan climate, they’re hardly outside the mainstream.

Then there’s Congress. For the last two years, the congressional GOP has behaved as if we live in a parliamentary system, where the head of the party is also the head of government, and the legislators of the same party are obliged to follow the leader. But that’s not how our system works. Congress is the first branch of government and is supposed to have a more adversarial relationship with the executive branch, regardless of party. You’d think Republicans, who claim to revere the Constitution, would know this.

The Democrats have been just as bad. Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has lied, in classic McCarthyite fashion, about having damning evidence he has to keep in secret (as have some former Obama officials). Both parties have been happy to let Mueller do the job properly reserved for Congress.

And that brings us to Mueller. He resisted both the demonization of Team MAGA and the flattery of Team Resistance and simply did his job. It’s not his fault that so many in the media and Congress have been reluctant to do theirs.

(C) 2019 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

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