The Mueller Report pulls together the facts of the Trump campaign and administration’s dealings with Russia, provides a lucid picture of how “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” and leaves us with a devastating behind-the-scenes look at the Trump White House.
It makes us remember that the founders of America hoped we would choose presidents, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, who are “pre-eminent for ability and virtue”; avoid characters with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity”; shun circumstances of “tumult and disorder”; and remain on guard against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” particularly by “raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and his team have laid out a minutely detailed narrative that authoritatively exposes the lies and false storylines that we have been living with since the 2016 campaign. His narrative validates reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and other news outlets. It’s a riveting account that has the visceral drama of a detective novel, spy thriller, or legal procedural—with the added and alarming dimension that it is fact, not fiction, and concerns the very governance of the United States of America.
From the start, Donald Trump has been determined to maintain narrative control—that is, control of storylines about matters including his career as a businessman, his promises to middle-class America, and the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election.
Trump’s accelerating stream of lies (as of March 17, The Washington Post tabulated that he had made 9,179 false or misleading claims during his first 787 days in office) has been part of an Orwellian effort to convince people to deny the reality in front of their eyes, just as his assaults on the press (“enemies of the people”) and the judiciary, F.B.I. and intelligence agencies (parts of “the Deep State”) represent efforts to undermine the institutions that might hold him to account.
For nearly two years, Trump has attempted to inoculate himself against the findings of the Mueller Report by assailing it as a “witch hunt.” He has cynically used the right-wing echo chamber to amplify his false assertions (“no collusion”) and last week he received a big assist from William Barr, his servile attorney general, who first released a highly misleading summary of the report and then held a news conference in which he again distorted its content in an effort to pre-emptively seize control of public perception.
The best antidote to this is the report itself which, in methodically putting the jigsaw puzzle pieces together, gives us a potent, clear-eyed and factual account of what happened.
The report is 448 pages, some of it redacted. Like Mueller’s 2018 indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, it displays the narrative storytelling skills of a veteran prosecutor (something also evinced by A Higher Loyalty, the memoir of James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation).
The report does not find that a criminal conspiracy existed between the Trump campaign and Russia, or that the president had engaged in obstruction of justice (on this second matter, Mueller adds that the report “also does not exonerate him”). Even so, it forms a damning portrait of Trump, his administration and his campaign as corrupt, mendacious, and contemptuous of democratic norms and the rule of law.
Trump emerges from this volume as a shameless, narcissistic, and impetuous megalomaniac—someone who puts himself before the country, before any principles, before policies or people. His default settings seem to be anger and self-pity. He berates and bullies his staff, and rages against perceived enemies. He is willfully ignorant about governance and national security concerns, scornful of experts, the policy-making process, and the checks and balances written into our Constitution.
Learning that Mueller had been appointed as special counsel, authorized to conduct the Russia investigation, Trump’s first reaction is not alarm over a foreign adversary’s attacks on American democracy, or thoughts about what might be done to thwart future attacks, but panic (and an apparent guilty conscience) about what this means for him personally: “Oh my God,” he is quoted saying. “This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.”
Donald McGahn, former White House counsel, complains that Trump had asked him to “do crazy shit”—like order him to have Mueller removed—and recounts conversations in which Trump says off-the-wall things like “lawyers don’t take notes.” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, recalls that, as a candidate, Trump remarked that his campaign would be a significant “infomercial” for Trump-branded properties. You can practically hear the eye rolling going on in the Trump Tower and West Wing corridors.
As Comey observed in his book, Trump’s behavior often resembles that of a mob boss: all that matters to him is loyalty. But the “boss man,” as Hope Hicks, former White House Communications Director, referred to him, often seems to inspire more fear and loathing on the part of his staff than respect. Though some aides, like Sarah Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, lie as reflexively as the president does, others draw the line when they realize Trump’s orders could land them in legal jeopardy.
They hope that he will forget what he told them to do, or change his mind. They secretly write memos to document their exchanges with him, and stash the notes in safes. The Mueller Report reveals that the President’s efforts to shut down or derail the investigation “were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Trump’s White House often sounds like it belongs in a Joseph Heller satire, a Three Stooges comedy, or an absurdist play like Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” about a dishonest, infantile clown of a king. It’s a place that reflects Trump’s nihilistic view of the world, as he’s spelled out in interviews and books: “I always get even”; “For the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect”; and “The world is a horrible place. Lions kill for food, but people kill for sport.”
But if the overall picture of the Trump White House will be familiar to close followers of the news, we read the Report with the additional knowledge that the quotes in its pages are sworn testimony, meticulously corroborated by other interviews and evidence in the form of official documents, emails, texts and memoranda. Names are named, as are times and places.
Mueller—respected for decades by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and renowned for his impartiality—has assembled a report whose understated, just-the-facts approach makes what it chronicles all the more powerful.
Trump thrives on chaos and distraction (like the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” he seems to instinctively know that if you “introduce a little anarchy” and “upset the established order… everything becomes chaos”). The report is a painstakingly judicious work embodying all the opposite qualities: logic, reason, fair-mindedness, Apollonian order.
Part of the appeal of traditional mysteries and thrillers (including TV series like “Law & Order,” “CSI,” and “Columbo”) is the process of watching a detective like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, John LeCarré’s George Smiley, or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot use reason and their investigative skills to connect the dots. As Holmes says in one story, “detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.” At the end of detective stories, order is usually restored with the solving of a crime, and with the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators.
Over the past several years, the sheer volume and velocity of Trump scandals and lies (analogous to what Russian analysts have called the Kremlin’s “firehose of falsehood”) have numbed many of us—causing us to turn away out of disgust or weariness, or to normalize the abnormal with the cynical shrug that authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin count on to reduce public engagement in politics.
But in its clarity and coherence, the Mueller Report slices through outrage fatigue. It provides a compelling roadmap for further inquiries and investigations, and reminds us of what is at stake.
It is not the last installment, of course. Mueller has left it up to Congress, other prosecutors, and the American people to write the final chapters.