In the long and fascinating history of American political pamphleteering, the Mueller report will be regarded for years to come as a unique and in many ways impressive literary achievement.
But as a legal work, and more importantly, as a precedent for future special counsel investigations, it cannot be regretted more deeply, or forgotten soon enough.
Part Robert Ludlum, part Herman Melville—blending John Le Carré’s themes of Cold War disloyalty with hints of Joseph Conrad’s brooding and distinctly Russophobic pessimism—the report paints spectacular allegations of espionage, treason, and theoretical obstruction of justice against Donald J. Trump on the grandest possible canvas.
As if through a glass, darkly, it glosses over how the intelligence community framed (quite literally, it turns out) certain select encounters of peripheral Trump staffers with assumed-to-be Russian assets around the globe in 2016, such that, taken together and connected by a dossier whose political origin was never spelled out forthrightly, they purported to reveal to a FISA court a subversive foreign conspiracy to undermine American democracy.
This “dossier” containing unverifiable evidence of shady provenance (to put it nicely), attested to under oath by many upper-echelon leaders of the Obama Justice Department and FBI, was inexplicably deemed sufficient to obtain several surveillance warrants on two peripheral Trump campaign hangers-on.
Both of these individuals—Carter Page and George Papadopoulos—are today still free men, cleared completely of the original conspiracy suspicions that laughably spooked the FISC multiple times. (Papadopoulos spent a grand total of two weeks in federal prison for lying to federal agents.) Let that sink in.
Needless to say, then, Mueller’s report avoids any nettlesome inquiry into whether said pre-FISC framing was actually warranted, since the framing—indeed the very fact of such spying—and not its demonstrably false justification, is the only rooted leg upon which the whole sprawling spectacle of the investigation itself now stands, casting its long shadow over our whole electoral system.
As is evident by now, though, particularly after the timed leak of the Special Counsel’s letter of displeasure with Attorney General Bill Barr’s no-nonsense approach the release of its final report, the Mueller investigation was only ever a political hit-job. Thus its “report” could never amount to anything more than that.
Fruit of the poison tree, indeed.
The Literary Character of the Report
“Call me Schiffmael.”
—Omitted opening line of a draft of the raw unredacted Mueller report, as collected from 1,000 blood-stained paper shavings dropped on the floor by a sub-par-paralegal
Weighing in at a hefty 448 pages, the much-anticipated Mueller report was an instant classic, already the Moby Dick of American political muckraking, and now available in several incarnations and formats on Amazon.com.
Far from a merely factual summary composed exclusively for the attorney general of investigative conclusions about whether to prosecute or not, the report provides a complex, multilayered, issues-conflating narrative, crafted more like the great American novel than a perfunctory legal brief, and clearly intended for more than Barr’s bespectacled eyes only.
It is a long and winding (not to mention windy) tale, with many angst-filled animadversions and desultory digressions about its grand antagonist, the Great Orange Whale—President Donald J. Trump.
It is also, at a more meta level, the tale of an aggrieved political establishment’s dramatic (if self-destructive) quest to hunt down and kill that Great Orange Whale, for the unforgivable offense of defeating them in an election. After all, his victory only could have been possible with supernatural, or at least foreign-conspired, malevolence. And this report aims to prove it, even if the assembled facts don’t support further indictments on mere criminal grounds.
The report’s voluminous, painstaking, and often Pynchonesque passages on the president’s erratic and supposedly reprehensible behavior in response to the media’s completely scandalous coverage of the scandalously leaky special counsel investigation constitute a veritable Gravity’s Rainbow of sometimes-revolting, but always enthralling encyclopedic detail.
Through it all, the “totally reliable and trustworthy narrator” provides needed guiding light for his “model reader” (presumably, newly empowered House Democrats itching for one or more impeachment pretexts) to navigate the bizarre and mythical shadow-world of Trumplandia. It highlights the silhouette of this seedy and darkly imagined underworld in search of a stubbornly non-existent Team Trump nexus between—and any connection whatsoever to—foreign powers and their alleged nefarious plots to subvert the otherwise preordained outcome of the 2016 election.
More 2020 dossier than 2016 investigative review, the vast majority of the Mueller report, however, is nothing more than a legal manifesto and extended meditation, not on “collusion” (because it could prove none), but rather on the apparently more urgent subject of obstruction of justice. Can a sitting president, merely by executing his executive powers under the Constitution, also be obstructing justice, even when there is no underlying crime found to have been committed? This absurd question is given serious consideration, for some reason. Hundreds of pages of it.
It vividly depicts the public indignations, select Twitter indiscretions, and the freely waived but otherwise privileged legal consultations of the wily and unpredictable target of its fearsome, high-strung legal harpoons—the president of the United States himself—whose campaign and family the report nevertheless formally clears of any “collusion” or conspiracy charges, despite its best efforts to connect dots where only holes in the original conspiracy theory ever existed.
The Death of a Narrative
And so for lack of any actual evidence of conspiracy in the millions of documents, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of witness testimonies, and (we are slowly learning) an elaborate counterintelligence campaign secretly launched against him by our own government much earlier than previously thought, the “Trump-Russia possible collusion” narrative is dead.
In other words, for all the loud proclamations of pending “bombshells” and all the fury engulfing the entire D.C. punditocracy and fomenting their rage nightly on cable news for the last two years, there was in the end no “there, there”—as one of the “totally reliable and trustworthy narrator’s” original contributing voices once frankly, in another context, fretted.
But then, rather than admit the obvious conclusion that you can’t obstruct justice if no crime has been committed and a complete inversion of the innocent-till-proven-guilty standard of traditional American justice, Team Mueller curiously refrains from “exonerating” Trump et al. of possible lawbreaking.
By punting the decision to prosecute for obstruction of justice on the merits to the attorney general, along with some curious theories about why he might (should?) indict the president on these charges,it leaves a door open to Congressional (read: political) intervention that, like Pandora’s box, never should have been opened in the first place on so weak a pretext.
But this was its whole purpose.
And Finally, We Come to the Political Objective
They knew before finishing the report that the attorney general planned, at his sole discretion and in the interest of transparency, to release quickly as much of the full report as possible to the public, and yet (we now know) they deliberately ignored his early request to assist in this effort by refusing to indicate in the report places where any grand jury testimony and other things, which by law must be redacted, should be redacted. They did this in order to create the media appearance that the AG himself was slow-walking its release.
Fortunately, Attorney General Barr would have none of this Swamp-savvy nonsense, and over their “snitty” objections he provided a simple “bottom line” summary of conclusions within days of the initial release of the report, letting the whole report stand (or fall) on its own merits with its full release a couple of weeks later, after the appropriate minimal redactions were finally made. Mueller’s team had hoped their stirring opening narrative would shape initial public reaction to the report, thus belying their political intent in the writing of it in the first place.
In the near term, as the Swamp’s mercurial denizens wrangle over Mueller’s dump of lightly redacted rumor, politically charged innuendo, and the prejudicially selected facts common to the one-sided grand jury process, members of the establishment political class are proposing quite creative pro-impeachment interpretations of the “raw evidence” it supposedly provides. This, despite the inexorable “bottom line” conclusions of “no collusion” and “no obstruction” that the applicable criminal legal standards demand.
The public rollout of a statutorily required report that was by that same legal framework only ever supposed to be confidential to the attorney general has unleashed a distinctly beltway political clown show for the American electorate in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
The shocking intensity of that clown show, however, merits deeper reflection on what, exactly, the Mueller report has actually achieved, versus what it was supposed to achieve—not to mention the good it could have achieved, had it been undertaken in good faith.
Mueller: Tragedy or Farce?
Had Mueller not merely regurgitated the DNC’s paid-for and questionable CrowdStrike assertions about Russian “hacking“ of their servers; had he shown actual wisdom in building a truly non-partisan legal team; had he reined in his more aggressive deputies in their excessive public humiliation of peripheral characters in barely-related, selectively-chosen prosecutions; had he informed the public sooner of his no-collusion conclusion when he determined it, certainly long before the 2018 election handed victory to its target’s unhinged political enemies—largely in anticipation of collusion-related indictments that never came; had he given equal consideration to “collusion” between Democrats and the Ukraine, or other bad actors besides the Russians, as his open-ended (and arguably legally inadequate) remit surely allowed; had he explored clear evidence of Fusion GPS involvement in the infamous Trump Tower meeting, which now appears clearly to have been a deliberate setup; had he, in short, behaved like the man of impeccable integrity that his admirers still, without evidence, insist he is—instead of the absurd, Ahab-like, self-styled Javert caricature that he appears, looking in hindsight at his entire career, to be—what a different, less fearful, more “normal” political landscape we would be beholding today!
But instead, Mueller’s prosecutorial Pequod, the once-invincible, media-beloved, whale-killing man-of-war, carrying the impeachment hopes and removal from office dreams of many a Great Orange Whale-hunter in their bloodlust for political vengeance, was sunk by an actual agent of cosmic justice, and is condemned now to spin anticlimactically in a whirlpool of its own media-fueled, leak-frenzied narrative-blubber.
Yet the totally reliable and trustworthy narrator still lives—barely!—clinging with desperation to the “coffin life-buoy” of his now-lifeless “collusion” companion, floating aimlessly at sea on the jetsam and flotsam of theoretical obstruction to an ambiguous, entirely regrettable—and ultimately forgettable—end.
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