The Morning Jolt

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For Mueller, Timing Is Everything

Robert Mueller (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Welcome back! Making the click-through worthwhile: The catch-22 for Robert Mueller in the timing of the conclusion of his investigation; why Solo worked in ways that so many other Star Wars movies didn’t; and a hit drama series gets picked up for a fourth season.

Robert Mueller’s Catch-22

This morning, President Trump tweets, “The 13 Angry Democrats (plus people who worked 8 years for Obama) working on the rigged Russia Witch Hunt, will be MEDDLING with the mid-term elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls. There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!”

Over in Politico, Nelson Cunningham, a former federal prosecutor who’s worked for bosses as varied as Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton, writes that “Mueller will want to avoid interfering with the November midterms, and so will try to conclude by July or August. On this one we can believe Trump’s new lawyer, former prosecutor and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claims Mueller’s target is September 1.”

Let’s assume that there are three possible outcomes from the Mueller probe. One: strong evidence of criminal activity or collusion by the president, and the sort of charges that are widely perceived to meet the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” justifying impeachment. Two: something bad, but far from indisputably impeachable — no evidence of criminal activity but bad judgment in choosing associates who committed crimes. Maybe some figures around Trump were in contact with WikiLeaks or the Russian government, and discussed hacking, but there’s no real evidence of a quid pro quo or that Trump himself knew that any of this was going on. Three: no evidence of criminal activity or collusion on the part of the president and as close to exoneration as Mueller can present.

There are five months until the midterm elections. Mueller could have his final report wrapped up and presented by then . . . or maybe he won’t.

Cunningham makes the interesting point that the decision of whether or not to release Mueller’s report — presuming the most consequential recommendations don’t leak — will be in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and there are some strong legal arguments for redacting portions of the testimony and evidence involved in this investigation: “Rosenstein will need to balance the manifest public interest in learning the findings of Mueller’s sweeping investigation against the very real restrictions on releasing grand jury materials. And, of course, much of Mueller’s evidence will be classified – FISA warrants, NSA intercepts, intelligence findings.”

Keep in mind, the process of proper redaction would take time, too. So even if Mueller turns in his final report in early September . . . the public may not get to see Mueller’s report, with the proper redactions until some time later.

If it’s scenario one, and the report becomes public before the election, Trump will be screaming that it’s all lies and that the whole thing is a witch hunt; what’s more, quite a few congressional Republicans and GOP candidates will be screaming that the timing of the report makes it a virtual “October Surprise.”

Republicans will be able to argue that the country had been here before. Lawrence Walsh was named the independent counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal back in 1986; he indicted former Reagan defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on one count of making false statements on October 30, 1992. Many Republicans screamed that this was Walsh unveiling an “October Surprise,” ensuring that discussion of a long-forgotten GOP scandal would dominate the headlines in the final days before the presidential election. Two months later, a federal judge threw out the indictment, arguing that the five-year statute of limitations had expired. Republicans were livid, contending that Walsh’s true aim had always been to meddle in the election.

A lot would depend upon the strength of the evidence that Mueller presents. Does he have phone conversation recordings or e-mails captured by the NSA? How reliable are the witnesses? Is there a specific quid pro quo, or just a general sense on the part of the Russians that they would rather deal with a President Trump than a President Hillary Clinton?

If Mueller has a report that’s bad for Trump, and presents it before Election Day, it will no doubt energize Democrats — but it might energize Republicans as well, as many will see it as another step in a long-simmering effort to remove Trump from office. It’s almost impossible to imagine Muller coming back with a scathing report and Democratic candidates for Congress not calling for impeachment. But do Democrats want to make the midterm elections a referendum on impeachment?)

Remember that in Adam Schiff’s mind, there is already ample evidence of collusion. If Mueller comes back with anything but a litany of crimes fit for a demon’s résumé, Mueller will get the Comey treatment on steroids, instantly transforming in the media’s eyes from a straight-arrow, law-and-order, just-the-facts investigator to a partisan hack who’s eager to help out in a coverup.

The closer we get to Election Day, the tougher it is for Mueller to argue that he tried to avoid influencing the election. (Keep in mind, in some states, it’s Election Month, not Election Day. In Minnesota, early voting begins Friday, September 21.) One wonders, if the report hasn’t arrived by the first week of October, whether there would be an argument for holding it until after the midterms — that any release in those key weeks will be seen as playing politics, even if that’s just the way the timing worked out.

Of course, if Mueller delivers his report right after the election, you’ll see the same howls of outrage, just reversed. Democrats will scream that by delaying a devastating report until after the election, Mueller “meddled with the wheels of justice” or something to help Republicans. If Mueller delays a report for Trump that isn’t so bad, Republicans will wail that Mueller withheld important information from the electorate.

Because there’s no scenario where the timing of the report’s conclusion isn’t criticized, Mueller will probably decide to let the chips fall where they may and turn it in when it’s ready.

But let’s face it, if he turns in a report that trashes Trump and lives up to Democratic impeachment fantasies just weeks before the midterm elections, he will be seen as a political operator, whether he likes it or not.

Don’t Listen to the Critics. Solo Is Great.

Solo is arguably the best new Star Wars film since the original trilogy.

It works really well because it never tries to be anything it isn’t. This is not a story about being “the chosen one” or grand destinies or the balance of the Force or the fate of the universe. This is the story of one down-on-his-luck charming scoundrel becoming a slightly less naïve, slightly less down-on-his-luck charming scoundrel, set in the seedier corners of the Star Wars universe.

I know some folks are grumbling that this film is derivative, but I feel like it does explore new territory. We’ve never seen a Star Wars film where the Empire is less of a factor, mostly in the background once the plot starts moving. We’re in realms mostly beyond law and order: back alleys, seedy bars, vast wildernesses, forgotten frontier towns, oppressive remote mining camps. Parts of this movie feel like the outer space versions of Oliver TwistFull Metal JacketThe Great Train Robbery, a scene or two from The Godfather, and any double-crossing, twisty heist movie you’ve ever enjoyed. (I suppose “Solo’s Eleven” wouldn’t work.) This is a story of honorable thieves trying to make their way through a dishonorable world. And yes, it does feel at times like the beloved Firefly and Serenity. Ruffian in love with a higher-class refined woman who has a heart of gold but bound to a shady profession? Check. Big, gun-toting roughneck right-hand-man? Check. A ship that is moody but always comes through when the you-know-what hits the fan? Check.

I’ve heard a few gripes that Star Wars has gone “social justice warrior,” but I didn’t see it at all. Yes, Lando’s robotic sidekick is a effectively a “Droid Lives Matter” activist, but in my eyes it was played for laughs. None of the characters take her seriously, and she’s delusional in her assessment of Lando’s perspective on her. Whatever the writer claims about Lando’s sexual preference, he’s still the smooth-talking ladies’ man that Billy Dee Williams first created. (A cynic would conclude that off-screen claims about Lando’s varied romantic interests are an effort to get some lefty praise for inclusion without having to actually show anything involving the sex lives of any characters in a film series with lots of appeal to children.)

(POTENTIAL MINOR SPOILER ALERT) Oh, and if you can, during the scenes in crime boss Dryden Vos’s office, keep your eye on the knickknacks and ornaments on the table in the background. I think the filmmakers make an assessment about which Indiana Jones movies were the best by which objects survive to the end of the film.

ADDENDA: Okay, this is brilliant: “Season Four of Cavs vs. Warriors was recorded in front of a live studio audience.”

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