At the end of Wednesday’s marathon appearances by special counsel Robert Mueller, I looked over at the American flag that flies across the street from my apartment building. It looked more bedraggled than usual, as if it had just endured one of those cringe-inducing Donald Trump flag hugs and now faced the Walk of Shame. But still it waved, tattered as it may be these days, and we try to live in hope.
I remembered when the end of Mueller’s investigation was announced in March. A lot of people got played, including members of the mainstream media. In a letter then, and a month later at a press conference just an hour or so before the actual report finally was released, Attorney General William Barr spun like a partisan whirling dervish, insisting that there was no collusion and no obstruction of justice on the part of one President Donald J. Trump. He blatantly and purposely mischaracterized Mueller’s findings.
As a result, in the words of Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, Barr’s dissembling and the subsequent coverage set in motion “an inaccurate narrative that has been almost impossible to dislodge.”
On Wednesday, we finally were able to sit down in front of our TV sets and hear for ourselves as Mueller described to two congressional committees his conclusions. If you had been listening or reading beforehand, expectations already were lowered, the public told time and again that Mueller would just stick to what was in the more than 400 pages of his report’s findings.
Mueller endured a grueling day of questioning and was criticized for his “halting” delivery—because we now live in America’s Short Attention Span Theater and view everything as if it’s reality TV, giving a thumbs down and voting people off the island if the performances don’t live up to our brain dead, show biz standards. Nor did he deliver the knockout punch that Democrats hoped would win over the public and put an end to the party leadership’s dithering over impeachment.
But to my mind, Mueller did what he said he’d do. He delivered the goods but left us wanting more, although that ain’t gonna happen if he has anything to say about it. Yes, he did appear world-weary and quietly distressed, and you would be, too, if you’d been through the last two years he’s experienced. Not only has he endured the ceaseless brickbats and opprobrium thrown at his investigation by Trump and his henchmen and henchwomen, but he also has survived constant exposure to the damning evidence of malevolence, greed and perfidy committed by this president and his smarmy pals. He may as well have been at Chernobyl.
True, for the most part, Mueller stuck to the text of his report, as predicted. But as former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal wrote prior in The New York Times, “The report itself is deeply damning to Mr. Trump, elevating him to the rare president who has been credibly documented as committing federal crimes while sitting in office.”
What’s more, there were revelations to be had in the Wednesday events and excellent opening statements and questioning by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler and especially House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, two men who also have had to run the gauntlet of relentless presidential and GOP mudslinging. They neatly summed up the conclusions of Mueller’s inquiries, and for those who have not had the time or desire to read his report, had them confirmed by the special counsel himself.
His investigation was “not a witch hunt,” Mueller declared, despite Trump’s protestations otherwise. Yes, Russia attacked our 2016 election, tried to do it again in 2018 and is to this moment figuring out new ways to screw up the 2020 vote. Other countries may be working on it, too. “I hope this is not the new normal,” Mueller warned, “But I fear it is.”
In the legal sense, the Trump campaign may not have conspired with the Russians, Mueller said, but knew that Moscow favored their guy over Hillary Clinton, welcomed the meddling and failed to report any of the 140 or more contacts the campaign had with Russian representatives. Meanwhile, candidate Trump failed to reveal that he was trying to negotiate a multimillion real estate deal in Russia.
Trump still denies everything and the Republican Senate continues refusing to take action. On Wednesday, the same day as Mueller’s testimony, Mississippi Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith blocked two bills requiring campaigns to notify the FBI and the Federal Election Commission if approached by a foreign power as well as a bill providing protection for the computers and mobile phones of Senate members and their staffs.And on Thursday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked other legislation already passed in the House that would require paper ballots and additional funding for the Election Assistance Commission, calling it “partisan.”
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Mueller confirmed that “collusion” was not part of his findings because it’s “not a legal term.” More important, he did not exonerate the president of wrongdoing when it came to obstructing justice – of trying to interfere with the investigation in every way, from failed attempts to fire Mueller and quash his probe to witness tampering (including Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen). Once out of office, Mueller confirmed, Trump could be subject to prosecution.
Lies were told, emails and texts deleted, files probably destroyed – some of this stuff could have come out of the recent trial and conviction of drug kingpin El Chapo. When asked if the president has been untruthful in his answers to written questions from the investigators, Mueller replied, “I would say generally.”
Predictably, Trump threw a hissy out on the White House lawn, screaming, “fake news” and “hoax” as he prepared to jump into a helicopter on his way to a West Virginia fundraiser (I have this fantasy of fat cat mining executives paying him off with wheelbarrows full of “beautiful clean coal.”).
In the end, if there was any “Apprentice”-style entertainment value to the proceedings, the fake posturing and crass performance art so common to network TV these days, it came from the Republican House members of the committees playing to the cameras, trying to capture the attention of their president and maybe a nightly slot at Fox News. Texas Republican John Ratcliffe in particular was said to be auditioning as the possible replacement for Dan Coats as director of national intelligence.
But as darkly comic as their bluster may have been, as John Cassidy observed in The New Yorker:
The wanton disrespect that these elected Republicans showed Mueller was perhaps the most alarming testament yet to Trump’s total conquest of the Party. In today’s G.O.P., as in Stalin’s Russia, evidently, decades of loyal public service count for nothing when the leader and his henchmen decide someone represents a threat and the apparatchiks have been ordered to take that person down. All that matters is carrying out the order and staying in the leader’s good graces. That isn’t congressional oversight. It is scorched-earth politics of a kind that is entirely antithetical to the notion of checks and balances enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
His concern was echoed at a press conference late Wednesday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee. "I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on,” he said, “because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard against this moment. This is our watch.
… We’re getting so used to normal to this kind of conduct by our president and by our attorney general and by our Republican colleagues, that it looks like we’re just going to accept it. Well, we refuse to accept it… It’s not about the president. It’s about loving democracy. It’s about loving our country.
Like the prophet Elijah after whom he’s named, Cummings is trying to protect us from the worship of heathens. So are Robert Mueller, Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff and the others who refuse to accept the rude tyranny personified by—as Schiff called him Wednesday—that “angry man down the street” from Capitol Hill.
I just looked out the window again. Our flag is still there. For now.