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White House

The Mueller Press Conference: More Confusion, No Clarity

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after delivering a statement on his investigation at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2019. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How Robert Mueller dropped the ball on his one big job, the pro-life movement is on the verge of a major victory in Louisiana, a reviewer finally gives Michael Wolff what he deserves, and some far-flung strange and scary places you can read about soon.

You Had One Job, Robert Mueller!

Mueller’s press conference was extraordinarily frustrating, for a variety of reasons.

First, Mueller emphasized the grammatically muddled point, “If we had had confidence that the president had clearly not committed a crime we would have said so.”

As Charlie Cooke lays out, this is not the legal standard in the United States. Either the president committed a crime or he didn’t, and as Mueller said elsewhere in his statement, “Every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court.” Prosecutors and law-enforcement officials are not supposed to hold press conferences before the national media and say, “This person may have broken the law, or they may not have, after all my investigation, I can’t tell. But Americans should know it’s a possibility before they cast their vote.” That’s not all that different from what James Comey said about Hillary Clinton on July 5, 2016, and Mueller is now turning this into a tradition.

Second, Mueller is making it clear he has no interest in testifying before Congress. If he does, it is a near-certainty that he will get asked some variation of, “Did President Trump commit a crime/obstruct justice, yes or no?”

For whatever reason, Mueller does not want to directly answer “Yes, he did” or, “No, I cannot prove it.” He keeps giving us this “If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” which is neither here nor there when the country really could use one or the other. As much as I understand Mueller’s reluctance to step into the partisan maelstrom, this is a big part — some might say the crux — of what he was assigned to figure out.

Mueller determined Trump didn’t collude, but along the way, evidence piled up that Trump at least wanted to obstruct justice — although he may have never succeeded in obstructing justice because his underlings ignored his orders.

A desire to obstruct justice, and only being hindered by reluctant underlings, is a really bad quality in a president. But it’s also a really thin reed for the first removal of a sitting president in American history. Back in 1998, I thought suborning perjury was sufficient reason to remove a president, but the country disagreed. We are now approaching some sort of emerging consensus that suborning perjury isn’t enough to remove a president from office, but an unfulfilled desire to obstruct justice is. (The notorious David French points out that the legal definition of obstruction of justice is so broad, it could cover legitimate and lawful exercises of the president’s power.) My suspicion is a lot of people apply the legal standard that “presidents I don’t like should be impeached, but presidents I do like should not be impeached.” I would refer them to the landmark decision of Goose v. Gander.

Quite a few Democrats believe the subtext of Mueller’s remarks was, “Yes, you should impeach the president.” A matter as important as this shouldn’t be left to subtext. If Mueller really believes that what he laid out in the report warrants impeachment, he could have and should have said, “The actions described in the report meet the legal definition of obstruction of justice. If Donald Trump were not president of the United States, he would be charged with the crime of obstruction of justice. Under our Constitution, it is up to Congress to determine the appropriate steps from here.”

Third, if, as Mueller claimed, the aim of yesterday’s press conference was to ensure that people remained focused on the threat of Russian hacking and online disinformation, he failed completely. As John Podhoretz observes:

Mueller just made sure all the oxygen in Washington will be sucked into talking about the president’s post-election conduct and not Russia’s 2016 conduct. And he will reinforce the president’s willful refusal to take Russian hacking seriously (because he wrongly thinks if he does so, he would somehow be acknowledging his election was illegitimate). Mueller cannot be blamed for how Trump reacts, but he just made reaching bipartisan consensus on the need for cyber-protections against electoral interference far more difficult.

Fourth, if you just want your report to be all you have to say on the subject, let your report be all you have to say on the subject. Don’t hold a ten-minute press conference to reiterate some points and then announce that’s all you’re willing to say.

Fifth, if you’re hired by the Department of Justice to investigate matters of extraordinary importance, I think you’re obligated to answer some questions, either under oath before Congress or to reporters. If Mueller wants to answer every Congressional question with, “I discussed that matter extensively in the report, please read it completely,” then fine.

Sixth, put me down as someone who felt like Mueller was a good man put in a tough situation but also a man who made mistakes. His Sphinx-like silence throughout the investigative process was old school and professional, but also allowed a pop-culture driven narrative fill the vacuum, cultivating an always-unrealistic faith among less-informed Trump-haters that at some point Mueller was just going to take Trump away in handcuffs. Somehow Mueller spoke for nine minutes and we’re left with less clarity in what he thinks than before. As former FBI supervisory special agent James Gagliano — who served on Mueller’s protective detail — wrote, “I am disappointed. The Mueller report and the subsequent special counsel statement left me, and many others, still seeking answers… Though he announced his intention to return to private life, Robert Mueller must be subpoenaed to testify in front of Congress.”

Finally, can we dispense with this notion that there’s something significant in the redactions that the public ought to know? The redactions were made in cooperation with Mueller’s office, and if the special counsel had any objection to any of the redactions, he could have and would have expressed them yesterday. He did not.

Does the Abortion Debate Change When a Democratic Governor Approves a New Ban?

It’s going to be fascinating to see how the abortion-industrial complex reacts to a Democratic governor during a year he’s up for reelection.

Conservatives might have gripes with the governor on a slew of other issues, but on abortion and life issues, he walks the walk:

It’s also not hard to understand where he comes from personally. Edwards is Catholic, and he and his wife Donna talk openly about their doctor’s long-ago recommendation that they terminate a pregnancy due to a spina bifida diagnosis. They never considered it, and their daughter, now a married college graduate, was featured in a memorable television ad on the subject.

That column by Stephanie Grace linked above laments that Edwards could be so ardently pro-life when he also “backs LGBTQ equality, who expanded Medicaid and has fought for a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.” There’s your choice, progressives. Support Edwards and give him a pass for the new abortion restrictions, or sit out this year . . . and watch a conservative pro-life Republican replace him.

And do pro-choice advocates outraged about the bans in other states get angrier at Edwards for being a Democrat and ruining the “Republican war on women” narrative, or do they prefer to avert their eyes from him?

Finally, Somebody Treats the New Wolff Book Like It’s Fiction

Some credit where it’s due: I’ve been grumbling about national media institutions continuing to take unsourced stories from Michael Wolff too credulously and seriously, but Ryan Lizza reviews his new book in the Washington Post and finally brings the skepticism Wolff deserves.

For long stretches of Siege, Trump and the White House staff disappear and the reader is subjected to a tedious ticktock of Bannon’s travels and his plotting from the Embassy, where he pontificates throughout 2018 about how the Republicans will win the midterms (they didn’t), how his nationalist project is still ascendant in the GOP (it isn’t), how Robert Mueller will destroy the Trump presidency (he didn’t), and how Bannon himself may have to replace Trump and run for president in 2020, with Sean Hannity as his running mate (we’ll have to wait for Episode III)…

Dramatic scoops are plopped down on the page with no sourcing whatsoever. Would-be newsmaking quotes are often attributed to Trump and senior officials without any context about when or to whom they were made.

… By far the biggest scoop in the book is a document that Wolff alleges is a draft indictment, eventually ignored, of the president from inside the special counsel’s office. In addition to the alleged indictment, Wolff reports on several interesting and newsworthy memos outlining Mueller’s legal strategy for what to do if Trump pardoned Michael Flynn or tried to shut down the investigation. These documents, if verified, would rescue the book, because they offer the first real glimpse inside the nearly airtight Mueller operation.

On Tuesday, the special counsel’s office issued a rare on-the-record statement insisting that the “documents described do not exist.”

Why isn’t every newspaper, magazine, and web site handling Wolff with this kind of justified incredulity?

ADDENDA: One of the things I’m doing to try to make relentless promotion of Between Two Scorpions fun is give little glimpses of the weird real-life locations that are settings in the book: The Stasi Museum in Berlin, “Snake Island” off the coast of Brazil, the endlessly burning “Doorway of Hell” Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan . . . and more are coming.

Earlier this week, I talked about the book with Brady Leonard of the No Gimmicks Podcast, along with some talk about the EU elections and the Democratic primary.

Father’s Day is in two weeks! Preorder now and Amazon should get it there in time.


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