The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Rules Matter

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs from the Capitol following his testimonies before the House of Representatives, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 24, 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: One of Robert Mueller’s lieutenants now writes that the former FBI director failed to subpoena the president and otherwise “pulled punches for fear of incurring Trump’s wrath”; the importance of rules, and how political figures who refuse to apply a consistent standard make governing impossible; and Newsweek has trouble discerning groups of people.

The Sudden and Dramatic Revision of Robert Mueller’s Reputation

Every now and then during the Robert Mueller investigation, I would emphasize that by universal agreement, Mueller was the best man for the job, and that he would leave no stone unturned. Whatever evidence he didn’t find probably didn’t exist. Way back on May 18, 2017:

Former FBI director Robert Mueller is respected across the spectrum, a tough guy but not a witch hunter. Our Andy McCarthy concludes, “Mueller is not a Lawrence Walsh type. He will not want to make a career out of this. At the same time, if serious criminal wrongdoing is uncovered, he won’t turn a blind eye.”

Mueller will do a thorough job, and if he comes to the end of his investigation and finds that Trump did not have any inappropriate or criminal contact with the Russian government in 2016, that should close the book on it. Yes, the conspiracy theorists in the Democratic party will shriek about a cover-up, the same way Diebold machines stole Ohio for Bush in 2004 and Gore really won Florida and George H.W. Bush secretly met with the Iranians in Paris to keep the hostages in Tehran until after Election Day. No election loss is ever fair or their fault.

And in July 2018, I noted the veneration of Mueller in pop culture:

Mueller enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the FBI, taking over the bureau a week before 9/11, but he barely permeated the public consciousness in that role. Now he’s being portrayed as the ultimate no-nonsense tough guy by Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live. How many Americans think that once Mueller issues his final report, this will be resolved quickly and neatly like a Scooby-Doo episode, with a mask being pulled off and everyone gasping, “It was Old Man Putin all along!”

(Can we all agree that if Mueller doesn’t come back with airtight, scathing, absolutely indisputable evidence of crimes by Trump, it doesn’t exist? Does anyone want to argue that Mueller is rushing the job, or leaving stones unturned? De Niro is playing Mueller as U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard right now; I don’t want to see arguments that Mueller is really Inspector Clouseau or Mister Magoo if he disappoints liberals.)

Whatever Mueller concluded, there were no do-overs, take-backs, or second bites of the apple. If Mueller didn’t find it or bring charges over something after 22 months, with 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and other professional staff at his disposal, after interviewing 500 witnesses, issuing 2,800 subpoenas, 230 orders for communication records, 13 requests to foreign governments, and nearly 500 search warrants, it doesn’t exist. No one can argue that the investigation was rushed, undermanned, under-funded, restricted, or somehow unfairly limited.

On July 24, 2019, Mueller testified before Congress, and Representative Doug Collins of Georgia asked him, “At any time in the investigation, was your investigation curtailed or stopped or hindered?” Mueller answered, “No.” He’s under oath at that moment!

And yet . . . now that the investigation has disappointed critics of the administration, members of Mueller’s own team are arguing that the former FBI Director was intimidated by the president and failed to do his duties. “In an explosive tell-all that offers the most detailed account yet of what happened behind the scenes during Mueller’s two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Andrew Weissmann writes of his frustration that the special counsel failed to subpoena the president and otherwise pulled punches for fear of incurring Trump’s wrath.”

No. Nope. Sorry, guys, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to spend two years telling the world to trust Mueller and then, once he gives an answer you don’t like, to conclude that Mueller isn’t trustworthy. You don’t get to spend all that time building him up to the point where his face is on prayer candles and “In Mueller We Trust” merchandise is for sale, only to suddenly change your mind and conclude he’s a bumbling, hapless Keystone Cop when he says the evidence isn’t there.

Government Cannot Function without Consistent Application of the Law

The sudden about-face on whether Robert Mueller is reliable, trustworthy, and thorough reflects the near-universal factor in our political fights; the contention that if X was true yesterday, X is true today. If you believe in the rights of the accused when the accused is someone you like, you should believe in the rights of the accused when the accused is someone you don’t like. If you thought trillion-dollar deficits were bad under one president, you probably ought to object to them under another president. Whatever you thought was the right way to handle a vacancy on the Supreme Court when Antonin Scalia passed away, it ought to be the right way to handle a vacancy now that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. If you thought the filibuster was a legitimate tool when your party was in the minority in the Senate, the filibuster is a legitimate tool when the other party is in the Senate. If you think nine Supreme Court justices is the right number now, then you should not expand it if your party controls the Senate and presidency, just because you can.

Any power or tactic your preferred figures or party can exercise, the other party can exercise. The history of American politics demonstrates that there are no permanent majorities, no eternal shifts in partisan balance. When parties lose, they adjust. They ditch the dead wood, and get new blood and fresh faces. In 2009, James Carville wrote 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Within a year, Republicans won back the House; within five years, the Senate, and within seven years, the White House.

There’s a commonly used gif of Ian McShane in the action film John Wick 2, declaring, “Rules. Without them, we live with the animals.” In the film, he’s playing a hotel owner whose property is strictly enforced neutral territory among a secret underworld of assassins; it’s something of a laugh line, as he’s so debonair, sophisticated, and civilized, while operating in such a violent and dark strata of society. Yet the point he’s making is accurate and worth keeping in mind in all legal and political fights; rules are what make a society. When we think of humanity’s worst and most desperate situations, we think of the complete breakdown of laws and rules. And rules that apply to only some people, dependent upon circumstances, are destined to break down. There’s a reason the courts usually strike down laws that are deemed arbitrary or capricious.

A lot of people marveled at the friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg, but it shouldn’t have been mystifying at all. Both justices believed that “the rules” mattered. They disagreed on what those rules ought to be, and how the Constitution ought to be interpreted, but they both recognized and agreed with John Adams’s statement that the United States is “a government of laws and not of men,” meaning that what the rules are is not dependent upon who is in power at any given moment. The law is the law until it is changed — either repealed or rewritten by the legislative branch, or struck down as unconstitutional by the judicial branch.

There are a lot of Americans who don’t actually believe this. They demonstrate through their actions that might makes right, that they may ignore laws they find inconvenient. “Laws are for little people.” “Only the little people pay taxes.” Whether it’s a masked punk on the streets of Portland destroying the property of others in objection to “inequality,” or lawmakers setting tax rates but failing to pay their own taxes, there are quite a few Americans who believe the law is mandatory for others but a mere suggestion for themselves.

People of Praise, People of Hope, People Are People, So Why Should It Be . . .

We all make mistakes. When your entire piece is based upon a mistake, please sit in the corner and think about how you got it wrong. Over in Newsweek:This article’s headline originally stated that People of Praise inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope. Newsweek regrets the error.”

Let me clear it up for you, Newsweek: People of Praise is one group of people, People of Hope is another group of people, and Soylent Green is yet another group of people.

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