Mueller’s Homeric flaw enables Trump’s odyssey
Attorney general takes advantage of special counsel’s Achilles’ heel to control narrative
Special counsel Robert Mueller exits after speaking about the Russia investigation at the Justice Department in Washington. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times
When I was a political reporter at the New York Times, I had an editor who told me never to give anyone a Homeric epithet. Such epithets denote a permanent trait, the editor explained, and people in the caldron of politics were mutable. So if I called that Republican strategist “savvy” this week, the man might do something dumb the following week. (And that is exactly what happened.)
But I might have to make an exception for William Barr. Homer had a couple of epithets that would suit our attorney general: “crooked-counselling” and “devious-devising” come to mind. In an interview in Alaska for CBS This Morning, Jan Crawford asked Barr – who was doing his best Cheneyesque dour-jowly-outdoorsman under the Big Sky routine – if he was worried about his reputation. Barr came into the job, Crawford said, with a good reputation on the right and the left and now he stands “accused of protecting the president, enabling the president, lying to Congress”.
In Homer’s epic poems, reputation is more exalted than life itself. But in Trump’s epic reign as the hotheaded, ammonia-haired, serpent-tongued destroyer of worlds, political survival is paramount, no matter the venality involved or the cost to your reputation. Barr responded to Crawford with fatalism, saying “everyone dies” and he doesn’t believe in “the Homeric idea” that immortality comes by “having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”
It’s a good thing, too, because no one will be singing odes about this attorney general being lionhearted in the rosy-fingered dawn. The twisty saga of Robert Mueller and Bill Barr is a case of an imperfect hero and a perfect villain. Barr is not so much the attorney general as the minister of information. His interview with Crawford was tactically brilliant. Barr once more deftly took advantage of the fact that Mueller, with his impenetrable legalese and double negatives, has handcuffed himself.
Even when the reclusive and mute Mueller finally stepped up to the lectern on Wednesday, he was still hiding. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” said Mueller, sounding like Odysseus struggling to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
Mueller is as elliptical as Barr is diabolical. The special counsel is clearly frustrated that we don’t understand his reasoning. But his reasoning is nonsensical. Adding insult to injury, the man whose whole career has been about asking the tough questions wouldn’t even take questions. And he doesn’t want to deign to testify about his $35 million report. Mueller was trying to let himself off the hook by insisting that he couldn’t reach a conclusion on the president’s obstruction because he was bound by a department of justice opinion stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Plus, he layered on some extra “principles of fairness”.
But talking to Crawford, Barr took the knife he had already stuck in his old friend and twisted it, using St Mueller’s prestige against him. He said Mueller, in fact, was not barred from reaching a conclusion, and this is why a “surprised” Barr and his former deputy, Rod Rosenstein, had to step in and reach a conclusion on obstruction, one ending up favouring Trump.
After indicating that Mueller was derelict and misguided, Barr went ahead and belittled him and his dream team as inept. Dismissively noting he and Rosenstein did not agree with a lot of the legal analysis in the Mueller report, Barr said they had to go over the findings to apply “the right law” to show that the evidence was “deficient” on the 11 instances of potential obstruction laid out by Mueller.
When Barr moved on to his investigation of the investigators who worked on the case of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, he really bared his claws. About the FBI team that did the investigating, Barr backed up all of Trump’s deep-state rants, saying: “Republics have fallen because of praetorian guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state.” He added, ominously, “Things are just not jiving.”
Just as Barr enables Trump, Mueller enabled Barr. Mueller’s argument seems to be that he can’t report on what his facts mean because the president has immunity from prosecution. But that doesn’t follow. If you believe Trump committed a crime, even if you can’t indict him now, why not say so? Otherwise, what was the point of the investigation? All Mueller was asked to do was to describe what he found and give his conclusions; then the justice department and Congress could do what they wanted.
As Walter Dellinger, an acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration, tweeted: “Everyone agrees a president can be indicted once he is out of office. That (in addition to impeachment) is a reason to gather the evidence now while docs are available and memories fresh.” But, tangled up in some overweening idea of fairness, the ultimate straight arrow decided to remain agnostic even though his job did not require agnosticism. And that made him weirdly complicit in Barr’s whitewashing of Trump.
Mueller coloured inside the lines and Barr seized the narrative. Rectitude was Mueller’s Achilles’ heel. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is worse: devils or saints.