Jurisprudence

Robert Mueller Gave Us Everything We Need to Know

Once again, the president is exactly who he presents himself to be.

Donald Trump crosses his arms across his chest while sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office.
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in August.
Leah Millis/Reuters

It has been said that there are two types of fiction writers, those who can show us entirely new worlds and those who tell us again what we already know. Robert Mueller is quite obviously the latter. What his report, released Thursday, does, irrefutably and in eye-scraping detail, is tell us what we already know. Some may find this frustrating—in many people’s eyes, Mueller went right up to the brink of finding serious criminal misconduct and then blinked, or punted, or declined to interview the president. But knowing, as he must have known, that anything short of a smoking gun, and perhaps even a smoking gun, would be met with cries of “no collusion” and “total exoneration,” Mueller took a slightly different approach. Rather than make specific recommendations of what comes next, he laid out the case and left it to Congress to do the work that he could not, for all sorts of constitutional and structural reasons, complete himself. And Mueller’s efforts managed to do one important thing: They cement the story. They paint a picture. We now have the montage.

As we pored over the 448-page report, the quote that became the very first hot take of the day was that the president, upon learning that Mueller had been appointed to investigate, shouted, “I’m fucked.” He declared that his presidency was over. The reason this matters is that it cements in the collective consciousness what everyone already knew—that the president wanted this probe ended and knew it was an existential risk to his presidency. What follows in the rest of the report is a highlights reel of things even the most casual observer already knew, at some level, regardless of ideology or politics. The Russians tried to steal the election. Some members of his campaign were happy to help. The president wanted to protect Michael Flynn. The president wanted to kill the special counsel investigation. The president materially and significantly tampered with witnesses to that investigation. The president lied and told others to lie. None of this was ever really in dispute. Almost everything about the president’s impetuousness and vindictiveness and malevolence was known, even before the election, because it’s been on full display, to all of us, for years. What Mueller has done is hold up a mirror to the presidency and shown us what was happening. Sometimes, it was happening on live television or Twitter, and sometimes it was coming out by way of superb reporting by journalists. But almost all of it was entirely known.

After two years without facts, we now have facts. Thus far the White House and Trump boosters haven’t disputed the facts. What they say is “no collusion,” because that’s what they were going to say, no matter what. But the facts in this movie are devastating. They paint a picture of Trump campaign members helping Russia steal an election, with polling data and secret meetings, and of a lawless and King Lear–like Trump trying desperately to obscure what was really happening. Mueller may not have taken the American public anywhere specific on questions of law. But he sure as hell took us all to the same place on the question of reality. And the facts that the American public—at least those who don’t have an intravenous hookup to Tucker Carlson’s worldview—are seeing today, whether by way of quotes, or hot takes, or television punditry, is a walk down the well-trod lane of how Trump operates. He lies. He tells others to lie. He fires people. He threatens. He demands loyalty. In some ways, I’m enjoying this movie more this time around precisely because, as 448-page encapsulations of all the facts I thought I’d become insensible to go, this is a hell of a read. And in its own pointillist and nuanced way, that story makes the conclusions of law somewhat less frustrating. It’s as if Mueller was just saying, “You all know this happened and continues to happen. Now you decide what to do about it.”

Congress now has its road map, should it decide to pursue inquiries into the matters about which Mueller could not make conclusions. Despite what Attorney General William Barr has asserted, Mueller makes it very clear that Congress is entitled to act on this report. But despite the heavy lawyering and the very lawyerly parsing, I actually read the Mueller report as a fundamentally political document as much as a legal one. It’s a delineation, chapter and verse, of how Trump has conducted himself in office, and for anyone who believes that the president should not be above the law, this is a damning report of presidential lawlessness. It’s lawlessness sometimes erased by staff, lawlessness sometimes declined by underlings, lawlessness sometimes erased by cluelessness and stupidity, lawlessness sometimes elided by technical definitions. But while Mueller may have avoided making explicit legal conclusions about criminality, he has sealed into amber a story that we all needed to hear. The fact that elites are arguing about the mental states required for criminal obstruction doesn’t change the fact that the American public is seeing, yet again, that Donald Trump is exactly who he presents himself to be.

For some proportion of the public, that means today confirms, once again, that the president is a valorous and heroic leader, triumphing against all odds. Barr had them at his first claims, in announcing the conclusions of the report, that the president feels he has been treated very unfairly. But for Americans who are weary of Donald Trump, bored of the lies, fatigued by the ugliness and rancor, there is nothing good about this report, which essentially says, “This guy is appalling, I can’t say whether he’s a criminal.”

Congress needs to do its job now and follow where Mueller has led. But the American public can no longer claim that nothing has happened. Mueller has shown us what is true. Nobody in the White House has disputed it. We can decide we’re fine with it or that we are not fine with it. That’s a political question, not a legal one. I think that may be what needed to happen all along.