Magazine | May 20, 2019, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

Until Biden’s poll numbers come down, we advise the women of Iowa and New Hampshire to keep their distance.

Joe Biden, who has just entered the presidential race, has been throughout a very long career a mostly reliable supporter of every left-wing cause from higher taxes to hate-crimes laws to liberal judicial activism. But now his critics in the Democratic party say he is a troglodyte because he, among other sins, thinks Americans should be able to stay in private health insurance and has said in the past that third-trimester abortion should be restricted. That Biden is now considered a moderate in some circles is a testament both to how far and rapidly his party has moved to the left and to the portward skew of the national press. Conservatives should keep a clearer view.

Announcing his candidacy, Biden claimed he knew he had to run when President Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the lethal 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. First: No one should believe a politician needed a reason to run for president. Second: The president’s words, while deeply confused and frankly embarrassing, were not an endorsement of neo-Nazis, as too many have tried to portray them. During the rambling comment at issue, Trump repeatedly said that he was not speaking about neo-Nazis. He seemed to be under the mistaken impression that some of the protesters were simply opposed to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The actual rallies were thoroughly an alt-right affair, and no such reasonable protesters were in attendance. It is not surprising to see the president’s opponents seize on this stumble, or to see them twist the truth in doing so. Especially when called to condemn the very worst elements of our society, Trump must speak more carefully.

At a campaign rally — the first since the publication of the Mueller report — the president said the following, apparently referring to intelligence and law-enforcement officials who had resigned: “If you look at what’s happened with the scum that’s leaving the very top of government, people that others used to say, oh, that’s one — these were dirty cops. These were dirty players.” Sometimes Trump’s more aggressive comments are taken out of context or twisted, as when he referred to MS-13 members as “animals” and many claimed he’d said this of immigrants in general. This is not one of those times. It should go without saying that a president should not refer to his fellow Americans, excluding heinous criminals, as “scum.”

This Passover was a solemn one. A white nationalist and anti-Semite attacked a service in Poway, Calif., killing one and injuring three. The damage could have been much worse save for the actions of two heroes: One, Oscar Stewart, an Army veteran, charged the gunman and chased him from the synagogue; the other, Jonathan Morales, an off-duty Border Patrol agent, arrived outside in time to fire several rounds at the attacker’s car before he fled. May the family of the deceased victim find peace, may the injured heal, and may we always celebrate those who run toward gunfire to defend others.

This year’s National Rifle Association convention was sullied by an explosion of infighting and politicking that culminated with the NRA’s president, Oliver North, announcing that he would step down from the role. North had tried, and failed, to engineer the removal of the NRA’s longtime chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, whom he had accused of presiding over serious financial mismanagement. The NRA is under investigation by Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, who publicly called the NRA “a terrorist organization” while campaigning for office. In a letter sent to the board, LaPierre rejected North’s allegations and refused to step down. LaPierre also noted that North has a conflict of interest in an ongoing legal battle between the NRA and its major media contractor, Ackerman McQueen, both of which pay North. Leadership fights are not new in the NRA, but this is the first major altercation since the group became a significant political force in the late 1970s. We hope that the group gets back in working order soon, as the defense of the Second Amendment is an ongoing concern.

Morning Consult surveys 5,000 Americans every day about whether they are happy with their governor, and for the first quarter of 2019, the ten governors with the highest favorability ratings are from the GOP. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts leads the list at 73 percent, followed closely by Larry Hogan of Maryland at 71 percent. Eleven states will hold gubernatorial elections in 2020, seven of which will be for seats currently held by Republicans, three of whom made the Morning Consult top ten. One thing they’ll have going for them: There’s something Americans seem to like about Republican governance.

Perhaps David Simon should try reprising his great Baltimore-set television drama The Wire, if only to show that his imagination can keep up with the actual shenanigans on the ground in that miserable city. Baltimore’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, is a smash success as an author of children’s literature, her Healthy Holly series having rolled up $800,000 in sales. The University of Maryland Medical System accounted for $500,000 of the total — while Pugh was a member of its board. Businessman J. P. Grant apparently paid $100,000 for one copy of one of Pugh’s books; he says he was under the impression he was helping to support a program to buy books for poor children. Thousands of copies of the books were found moldering in a warehouse. Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities spent $200,000 on the books; Pugh was a key figure in approving a $48 million city contract for Kaiser in 2017. Federal agents (FBI and IRS) raided Pugh’s homes (plural) and her office, and subpoenas have been issued through the medical system and elsewhere. If they’re paying attention, the kids are certainly getting an education.

The Left’s flirtations with anti-Semitism have grown bolder of late, but it was nonetheless shocking to see, on the pages of the New York Times’ international edition, a cartoon of President Trump blind, wearing a yarmulke, and being led around by a dog with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu and a collar bearing the Star of David. The paper’s first reaction was a non-apology in which it admitted the cartoon was an “error in judgment”; its second was a more contrite statement; its third was to drop the syndication service that had provided the comic. That such a thing was published in the Paper of Record is bad enough. The management of the Times is evidence that the International Jewish Conspiracy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Harvey Mansfield, the legendary professor of government at Harvard, was invited to give the commencement address at a little college in Montreal. He was going to talk on the great books — the value of studying them. But the college disinvited him, in a typically weaselly way. Administrators could not take the heat from having invited a conservative in the first place. Mansfield will soldier on, his reputation towering. The victims in this case were the graduating students, deprived of hearing a great scholar on a great topic.

Elizabeth Warren has entered the bidding war for 2020 primary votes with a daft and ruinously expensive proposal to forgive most student-loan debt and then have the government pay college tuition for every American who wants it. Warren’s plan would forgive debt on a sliding income scale, but that’s a fig leaf: About a third of all student-loan debt is held by the highest-earning quarter of households, while the bottom quarter holds only a trivial amount. For all the talk of a student-debt “crisis,” most borrowers pay less than 5 percent of their income in student-loan payments. This is a “crisis” for higher-earning college graduates who’d like a little more disposable income (wouldn’t we all?), not a crisis for the poor, who mainly do not go to college. On top of those billions, Senator Warren proposes to add trillions for universal “free” college — not just tuition, but also books, student housing, living expenses, child care — creating a parallel welfare state for the young and upwardly mobile. Government spending on higher education has never been higher; the credibility of a bachelor’s degree has never been lower.

Bernie Sanders was asked whether he thought the Boston Marathon bomber should be allowed to vote, and with commendable honesty but questionable reasoning he answered yes. Admittedly, invoking a notorious mass killer makes this something of a loaded question, but even run-of-the-mill felons have shown contempt for the law and should not be allowed to influence the making of laws until their time is served, at the earliest. If the prospect of returning to the voter rolls provides an added incentive for good behavior, so much the better, but criminals should never be treated as just another voting bloc.

The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of the year, a welcome sign of continued strength. Even better, that growth has been accompanied by a strong job market and very low inflation. Our sometime colleague Kevin Hassett, who serves as chairman of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, says that the continued growth is proof that last year’s strong performance was not a “sugar high” from tax cuts but a real, long-term policy success in the effort to make the United States a better place to do business. There is some irony, too: The U.S. economy took notice when the Fed decided to sit on its hands rather than raise interest rates this year, but the country also has benefited from an improving global economy helped along by China, Trump’s trade adversary, which is growing more quickly than had been expected after a rough patch last year. The Republican tax-reform effort surely has played a role in this, as has the Trump administration’s focus on regulatory relief. We’ll take some more of that, please.

The Jones Act is a classic piece of Progressive Era protectionist legislation — and, at the moment, a large tax on U.S. energy consumers. It requires that any ship moving goods or people between U.S. ports must be owned and crewed by American citizens or permanent residents, registered and flagged in the United States, manufactured in the United States, etc. Because environmentalists have successfully prevented the construction of sufficient pipeline capacity, utilities in the Northeast depend on shipments of liquified natural gas (LNG) for fuel, as do those in Puerto Rico — but there are no tankers that can carry that LNG that meet the Jones Act requirements. As a result, users in the Northeast have been importing LNG from Russia, and those in Puerto Rico from Trinidad. The Jones Act is pure corporate welfare, serving the interests of a small number of politically connected businesses at the cost of — everyone else, in essence, since everyone consumes electricity and transported goods. The Trump administration has been considering issuing a waiver for LNG shipments, which would be a step in the right direction even as it goes against the president’s protectionist inclinations. Better to repeal the Jones Act entirely.

At press time, President Trump was still considering possible nominees for two vacant seats on the Federal Reserve Board. Among the names that have been brought up is National Review’s own Ramesh Ponnuru. Ramesh has a solid understanding of monetary policy, and he combines this with an extensive grasp of the social context in which economic decisions are made, something far from common among the green-eyeshade set. Yet despite his stellar qualifications, Ramesh does lack one important skill for the job. As his readers, and especially his editors, know, Ramesh is incapable of writing an unclear, misleading, or ambiguous sentence, and in a job where obfuscation seems to be the chief mode of communication, that’s quite a handicap. Yet Ramesh is nothing if not a quick study, and if he does end up being nominated for the Fed, we’re sure that, with the proper training, he can learn to tone down the clarity and be just as inscrutable as the rest of them.

Gasoline currently costs more than $4 a gallon in California, and Governor Gavin Newsom wants to know why. He has ordered the state’s energy commission to investigate the “unaccounted-for price differential,” hoping that the panel will “help shed light on what’s going on in our gasoline market.” It sounds like quite the puzzler. Yet the governor seems unfamiliar with one of his state’s products, horror movies, or else he would remember the most obvious explanation of all: The killer is inside the house — in this case, the state house. As Reason explains: “A state excise tax currently adds $.417 per gallon, a rate that will increase to $.473 come July. On top of that, the state imposes a 2.25 percent gasoline sales tax, . . . a low-carbon fuel standard and a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon emissions which together increase the state’s gas prices by $.24 per gallon above the national average.” Wait a minute — high taxes make gasoline more expensive? Who knew?

By this point, conservatives are used to progressive district-court judges’ imposing nationwide injunctions to stop lawful Trump-administration policies. It has happened with the travel ban. It’s happened with DACA repeal. And now it’s happened again in response to the Trump administration’s decision to impose a lighter version of the Reagan administration’s so-called “gag rule,” which required organizations receiving Title X family-planning funds to be physically separated from abortion facilities and to limit their abortion referrals and abortion counseling. Reagan’s rule was upheld by the Supreme Court in the Rust v. Sullivan decision (1991). The Trump version does not prohibit abortion counseling; it does limit abortion referrals and requires physical separation of abortion facilities. But even with this on-point Supreme Court authority, and notwithstanding the comparative laxity of the Trump administration’s version of the rule, a federal judge from the Eastern District of Washington issued a nationwide injunction — an action that will delay implementation of the rule for many months, if not more than a year. A small set of lawless federal judges has now fully joined a judicial “resistance.” The Supreme Court must not only overrule their unreasoned opinions but also limit their ability to block policies nationwide. A single district-court judge was never intended to have such power. 

On Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, seven Islamist terrorists detonated backpack bombs in three Catholic churches and three hotels, killing 253 and wounding hundreds more in the largest single-day massacre in the country’s history. Ten days later, schools remained closed and a limited state of emergency was still in effect; four suspects were in custody (two had been killed in the attacks); the prime minister called Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo to assure him that search operations were ongoing. Meanwhile, evidence emerged that, days before the bombings, national intelligence officials had circulated memos warning that certain militants were “planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack in Sri Lanka shortly.” Ranjith criticizes the government for not sharing that information with him. He and other Catholic officials say they would have taken preemptive measures and canceled Masses. The Sri Lankan government failed. The best that it can do at this point is tighten its security protocols and bring to justice the perpetrators who are still living.

More than 300 Christians were killed in Nigeria in February and March of this year, according to the Barnabas Fund, a nondenominational church-aid organization. It reports that nearly 6,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed in the past two years. Christian farmers of the Middle Belt, a region between the Muslim north and the Christian south, have long been subject to attacks by Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Nigerian Christians in the north face social discrimination as well as threats of violence. President Muhammadu Buhari has issued vague promises of “permanent peace.” He may be sincere, but the terrain is difficult: Some of the most vulnerable areas are sparsely populated and hard to police. While Nigerian Christians do have advocates (though never enough) among their Western coreligionists, those whose voices in the matter carry farthest are Muslims. Some do speak up. They could speak louder.

Notre-Dame de Paris still stands. The main damage wrought by the fire that broke out on April 15 was to the roof, whose wooden latticework was consumed by flames, and to the spire, a 19th-century addition to the cathedral, whose cornerstone was laid in 1163. The façade, the walls, and the stained-glass windows were largely spared, as were Notre Dame’s precious relics. Individuals and corporations have pledged more than a billion dollars toward the building’s restoration, which President Emmanuel Macron thinks can be completed within five years. That may be optimistic. Other great churches have burnt down and been rebuilt; see the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Notre Dame itself was restored after a period of abuse during the French Revolution. Note that the French government as well as most secular-minded citizens regard the world’s most famous Gothic cathedral with a respect that, though it’s less than a devout Catholic might wish for, is not nothing.

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the Washington Post printed two separate op-eds that took aim at a strange target: Ben Shapiro, editor in chief of the Daily Wire. Two different writers tied Shapiro’s tweets about the fire — one lamenting the loss to “western civilization” and the other tying the cathedral to our “Judeo-Christian” heritage — as echoing the language of the “far right” or even “alt-right.” This is an absurd, obscene, and puzzling slander. It’s absurd because declaring the cathedral part of Western civilization is a statement of fact. It’s obscene because Shapiro has in fact been a target of the alt-right and a stalwart opponent of far-right ideologies. It’s puzzling because these facts are known (or easily discovered) by any semi-competent writer or editor.

The British government has a plan to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and has roped a more-than-willing Donald Trump into the proceedings. An official state visit to Britain would include an address to the Commons and the Lords in Parliament and a banquet with Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace. Not so fast, sir. The speaker of the House of Commons is one John Bercow. He rejects the neutrality that his role traditionally demanded and received, and has even been accused by parliamentary officials of getting his way by bullying and creating “a climate of fear and intimidation.” Speaking in Westminster is not an automatic right, says Bercow, but an “earned honor,” and he feels “strongly opposed” to granting Trump any favors. Tories in Parliament rose in anger, none angrier than one Norman Fowler, speaker of the House of Lords, in a way Bercow’s opposite number. In his view, disrespect for the American president at this point is disrespect for the Americans who lost their lives on the Normandy beaches. Piling up still more disrespect, Bercow has announced that he won’t be attending the banquet in Buckingham Palace. A good many politicians are studying the procedure for removing the speaker from office.

Ever since Sir Roger Scruton, Britain’s foremost conservative philosopher and an expert on aesthetics, was appointed by the Conservative party to an advisory committee on building design, left-wing activists have worked hard to get him fired. Last month they achieved their aim after George Eaton, deputy editor of The New Statesman, stitched together a patchwork of allegedly “outrageous remarks” Scruton had uttered in an interview with him. The government reacted by firing Scruton without so much as asking to hear his side of the story. Various Conservative members of Parliament publicly condemned him, and one Labour MP, speaking in Parliament, even accused him of being a “white supremacist.” Eaton then posted a picture of himself drinking champagne from the bottle with a caption expressing delight at having gotten “the right wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton” fired. Scruton denied the allegations of various -isms and -phobias and asked The New Statesman to release the full recording of the interview. It did not. But the recording was leaked, whereupon Douglas Murray wrote a devastating exposé of Eaton’s dishonesty in The Spectator, showing how he had distorted Scruton’s words. Scruton then gave a defense of himself in the Daily Mail and on the BBC. The recording was made public, and The Economist, the Sun, and all honest brokers who had listened to it weighed in to condemn Eaton’s hatchet journalism. Tory MPs are now sheepishly trying to explain why they were so quick to sacrifice Scruton to the mob. It remains to be seen whether he will be reinstated.

American student Otto Warmbier allegedly stole a propaganda sign from a North Korean hotel; for this he was arrested and apparently tortured into a coma by the country’s Communist government. Desperate to secure his release from the country, American officials agreed to pay a $2 million “medical bill” for his treatment at the hands of the brutal regime. Both the president and his national-security adviser, John Bolton, insist the money was never actually paid. We should hope not.

Early in the morning, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader in Venezuela, launched what he called “Operation Freedom.” He had some defecting soldiers with him. Also at his side was Leopoldo López, a symbol of the opposition, long a political prisoner. He had been freed by defecting guards. Guaidó, López, and their allies called on the Venezuelan people to rise up, making a decisive lunge at the chavista dictatorship, led by Nicolás Maduro. The democrats won the defection of Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of Venezuela’s premier intelligence agency (who had been sanctioned by the United States for human-rights violations). Things were looking up. Quickly, however, the dictatorship rallied, unleashing violence on protesters in the street. Maduro also had the backing of the Russians and the Chinese. López and his family sought refuge at the Chilean embassy, and ultimately the Spanish embassy. According to reports, some 25 of the defecting soldiers sought refuge at the Brazilian embassy. As of this writing, Operation Freedom is on its heels. The United States, along with other democracies, has declared its allegiance with this operation, which is the honorable and correct thing to do.

The world hasn’t paid much attention to presidential elections in Ukraine. This is likely to change now that the election sprang an astonishing surprise that only Woody Allen could have thought up. The winner, 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian known for his role as a teacher in a hit television series, Servant of the People, in which he accidently becomes president. In a landslide, Zelensky received three votes for every one cast for the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. Ukraine has one of the most extreme histories of anti-Semitism and Zelensky is Jewish. “I’m just a simple person who came to break the system,” Zelensky said of himself, but he seems to have won because Poroshenko had promised to cut off the hand of anyone corrupt, and at a public meeting Zelensky was able to look him in the face and ask, “Why do your people all have both their hands?” Zelensky also promised that he wouldn’t mess up, but Vladimir Putin in the name of Russia has been waging war against Ukraine for five horrible years, and he is not a simple person breaking the system.

Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution: 37 men. The usual charge: “terrorism.” Most of the men were from the Shiite minority. Most of the men seem to have been beheaded. At least one was crucified. Three of the 37 had been arrested when they were minors. One of them, Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat, had been arrested when, age 17, he was at the airport, preparing to leave for Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Most of the 37 confessed under torture — then repudiated their confessions in court. Saudi judges and other officials of that nasty kingdom often resemble Stalin’s men in flowing white robes.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military has been unassailed and unassailable. Our quantitative and qualitative superiority has been unprecedented in the modern era, and Americans are used to believing that no military can even think of challenging our armed forces in a straight-up fight. Yes, insurgents can harass us at the margins, but the strategic situation is unchanged. Or perhaps not. Evidence is now emerging that our Russian and Chinese rivals are utilizing next-generation technology to create multi-million-dollar weapon systems that may be able to defeat our multi-billion-dollar platforms. A carrier battle group cannot dominate the seas if the carrier is sunk. An F-22 squadron cannot dominate the air if it is destroyed on the ground. It is imperative for the American military to realize that it is entering a period of vulnerability and to plan accordingly.

The U.S.S. Stethem and the U.S.S. William P. Lawrence took a sail through the Taiwan Strait, the fourth time this year that two American ships transited the 110-mile-wide passage separating the island of Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) from the mainland People’s Republic. The PRC claims sovereignty over democratic Taiwan, which has resisted Communist rule since 1949. The Navy characterized the incident-free trip as “routine,” but American ships are crossing the strait more frequently this year. This occasion came just weeks after PRC fighter jets intruded into Taiwanese airspace and caused a brief but tense standoff. Sometimes a display of force can prevent its use.

As far as we can tell, no one has ever said a bad word about Naruhito, the new emperor of Japan. Japanese and foreigner alike have admired him. Now 59, he is the first Japanese emperor to be born after World War II. As a child, he loved music, baseball, and mountain climbing. When he was 14, he went to live with a family in Australia for a while. His experience is broad. He studied at Oxford, where he researched and wrote about the river Thames. He proposed to the girl he loved three times before she accepted. (That’s diligence. That’s amore.) At some point, he switched from the violin to the viola, saying that he preferred to blend in rather than lead. He will now lead, at least ceremonially. This new era in Japan is to be known as Reiwa, which may be interpreted as “beautiful harmony.” Let it prove true. Post-war Japan is one of the most gratifying developments in the world.

Kate Smith (1907–1986) was a beloved American singer. She was best known for “God Bless America.” Both FDR and Wendell Willkie used her recording of that song in their 1940 campaigns. The Philadelphia Flyers adopted her and the song in the late 1960s. They eventually put up a statue of her. The New York Yankees started playing her “God Bless America” after 9/11. But the other day, someone pointed out that, in the early ’30s, Smith recorded two songs with racist lyrics. (One of them was also recorded by Paul Robeson.) Pronto, the Flyers and the Yankees announced that they would no longer play Kate Smith, and the Flyers hauled away her statue. These were sick overreactions. Smith, a Virginian, was a racial liberal. She was way ahead of her time. In 1945, on national radio, she spoke out against racism. In 1951, she invited Josephine Baker to appear on her TV show — the first time this black star had ever been seen on U.S. television. Kate Smith does not deserve to live in infamy. She has been done a terrible injustice, which should be reversed.

Richard Lugar was one of those rare senators who exercise considerable influence in foreign affairs. He represented Indiana in the Senate for six terms: 1977 to 2013. Twice, he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He was a Republican, conservative on some things, moderate on others (enough so that we favored a challenger in his last race). Born in 1932, he led an all-American life. He was a farm kid and an Eagle Scout. He was co-president of his class at Denison University. He married his co-president, Charlene. He was a Rhodes Scholar and enlisted in the Navy. He ran a machine business and was elected mayor of Indianapolis. (In the national press, he was known as “Nixon’s favorite mayor.”) His signature issue in the Senate was nuclear proliferation, and its cousin, nuclear disarmament. He was a strong believer in American leadership in the world. He was exceptionally kind, to interns and kings alike. In a way, he was always an Eagle Scout. He has died at 87. R.I.P.

Every other year, on average, the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship when John Havlicek was on the roster. Drafted out of Ohio State in 1962 by both the Celtics and the Cleveland Browns, he gave the latter a try, as a wide receiver, before throwing in his lot with the basketball dynasty that coach Red Auerbach was still busy building up in New England. Auerbach, who later called Havlicek the “guts” of the team, made him the sixth man. Havlicek, all hustle, redefined the role. Teammate Bill Russell called him “the best all-around player” he’d ever seen. Havlicek’s position was hybrid: shooting guard and small forward. His trademarks were stamina and discipline, the fruit of a hardscrabble childhood on the Ohio River. The Celtics wasted no time in retiring Havlicek’s number, 17, after his last game, in 1978. He remains their all-time leading scorer, with 26,395 points. He entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 but otherwise avoided the limelight in his retirement. Dead at 79. R.I.P.

“In the debate between Jerusalem and Athens,” the Church chooses both, James V. Schall, S.J., remarked in his book The Mind That Is Catholic, using up what would have been the perfect title for his autobiography, which he was never vain enough to write. Intellectual and devout in equal measure, Schall was an old-school Jesuit, the author of more than 30 books and hundreds of essays over a career that spanned half a century. He began teaching political philosophy at universities in the 1960s. In 1977 he moved to Georgetown, which remained his academic home until his retirement from teaching in 2012. He continued to write. His enthusiastic following among average people in the pews proved that the market for complex ideas informed by faith and scholarship is greater than publishers tend to appreciate. He didn’t patronize his readers, though he took care to make his prose lucid. He liked short sentences. Beset by one illness after another in his last years, he bore them with grace — and, at times, a sense of humor. Dead at 91. Requiescat in pace.

POLITICS
Grading the Report

So much for collusion. The conversation has now officially moved on from the obsession of the last two years to obstruction of justice.

That’s because the first volume of the voluminous Mueller report, the half devoted to what was supposed to be the underlying crime of a Trump conspiracy with Russia, came up completely empty. It tells us very little that’s new. There’s no particularly sinister information about Carter Page, the bit player who, the FBI repeatedly told the FISA court, was probably a Russian agent. The operators who portrayed themselves as closest to WikiLeaks or Russia were usually braggarts and liars exaggerating their importance. Nothing came of the infamous Trump Tower meeting. Paul Manafort wasn’t at the center of a conspiracy between the campaign and Russia but operating in his greedy self-interest.

The Trump campaign was amateurish and without scruple in exploiting the WikiLeaks disclosures, but we all could have agreed on that long ago without a years-long special-counsel investigation. Indeed, given how unlikely collusion always was and how far the evidence gathered by Mueller is from showing it, one wonders why the special counsel couldn’t have issued an interim report long ago, dispelling the persistent — and poisonous — idea that Trump was about to be proven a traitor.

The business end of the Mueller report is the second volume, on obstruction. The investigation ended up following the typical pattern of special-counsel probes on a much larger scale: fixating on process crimes even when there is no underlying offense. Only in this case the target was the president of the United States.

The report implicitly picks an argument with Attorney General William Barr over the question whether a president can obstruct justice in the course of exercising his lawful powers. We are inclined to Barr’s view that he can’t. Regardless, the case against Trump is ambiguous, as even Mueller acknowledges.

The firing of FBI director James Comey was almost certainly motivated by the president’s frustration that Comey wouldn’t say publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation, and had indeed created the opposite public impression. Some of Trump’s deceptions were for public consumption, not to influence the investigation. Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller and get then–attorney general Jeff Sessions to curtail the investigation came to nothing.

Finally, despite Trump’s hatred for the investigation, his White House acceded to its every request except for an interview with the president.

None of this is to deny the report’s distressing portrayal of how President Trump operates. He avoids potentially disastrous missteps, such as firing Mueller, only because his aides ignore him and he fails to follow up. His dishonesty constantly creates dilemmas for those around him, forcing them to choose between lying for him or defying him. No president of the United States should ever applaud people for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors or call someone who cooperates a “rat.” Most White House scandals involve presidents getting ill served by overly zealous, norm-defying advisers. In this episode, Trump flipped the script.

But it wasn’t Mueller’s job to establish whether Trump is a normal president. It is bizarre that such a damning depiction of the chief executive was produced by an inferior officer of the executive branch. It is even more bizarre that Mueller punted on whether the president had committed a chargeable crime — leaving the question to a Justice Department that was supposed to be too conflicted to undertake the Russia investigation via the usual channels — and yet still laid out a quasi-indictment of the president. 

But prosecutors aren’t supposed to be editorialists: They should speak through the charges they bring, or not at all. Mueller was constrained by Justice Department guidance saying that the president can’t be indicted, which raises the question why a prosecutor, rather than Congress, was investigating the matter to begin with. The Mueller report is, in effect, the result of a preliminary impeachment inquiry, which it should be the responsibility of Congress to conduct on its own.

Democrats are now divided on whether to take up the baton. Nancy Pelosi believes impeachment would be a political mistake but has been pushed into not ruling it out. She surely believes further investigation will be a way to forestall impeachment, while many of her troops believe it will be the prelude to it. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.) is being similarly cagey. Trump is going to resist the coming congressional inquiries with all his might, perhaps making impeachment more likely. It would be mostly a symbolic exercise, since the Republican-held Senate will never convict and remove the president for any of this behavior. Besides, the public gets the opportunity to pronounce on Trump’s conduct in office in about 18 months in another presidential election. 

At least this dispute is now taking place between the branches and out in the open rather than within the executive branch, in the black box of Mueller’s office. We have never been fans of special-counsel investigations, which often lack proportion and take up politically charged questions best left to politically accountable bodies. Nothing about the Mueller probe changes our view.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

In This Issue

In Defense of Markets

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

The Week

The Week

Until Biden’s poll numbers come down, we advise the women of Iowa and New Hampshire to keep their distance.

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Culture

Cold Brew’s Insidious Hegemony

Soon, many parts of the United States will be unbearably hot. Texans and Arizonans will be able to bake cookies on their car dashboards; the garbage on the streets of New York will be especially pungent; Washington will not only figuratively be a swamp. And all across America, coffee consumers will turn their ... Read More
National Security & Defense

The Warmonger Canard

Whatever the opposite of a rush to war is — a crawl to peace, maybe — America is in the middle of one. Since May 5, when John Bolton announced the accelerated deployment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf in response to intelligence of a possible Iranian attack, the press has been aflame ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More