Robert Mueller gave a surprise press conference at the Justice Department on Wednesday morning, in which he essentially offered up the CliffNotes of his 448-page findings. There was nothing particularly new or surprising revealed, so instead, we watched this become yet another example of the Yanny versus Laurel–ification of everything in America. By that, I mean we all listened to the same brief prepared statement, and the left heard that the president would have been cleared had the special counsel been able to determine that he had not committed a crime, and he was not cleared, which implies that perhaps the president in fact committed a crime, even though Mueller was constitutionally barred from saying so. The right heard what it has heard since the day Attorney General William Barr first “summarized” the findings in the initial report: “No collusion, no obstruction.” In under an hour, the president tweeted, again, that he had been cleared: “Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”
Robert Mueller is a man who wants nothing to do with the incipient decline of norms, civility, and the rule of law. That’s why we never should have been surprised when he originally tried to put out his meticulous report and then, essentially, ghost us. That is also why we shouldn’t be surprised that he spent this morning essentially repeating exactly what he put in his report two months ago, a report he would really like us to read. Mueller wrote his special counsel report for a world in which it is assumed that facts and truth will inform actions. As his speech this morning made clear, he still believes that we live in this world. We do not.
We live in the world where, for the next few hours, Fox News will continue its witch-hunt narrative while offering up the view that there should be show trials for former FBI Director James Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. And MSNBC will insist that Robert Mueller all but said that the president obstructed justice and could not constitutionally be charged.
Perhaps the only thing that will break through the Yanny-v.-Laurel divide is the sound of Congress stiffening its collective spine after weeks of incoherent claims that the nation is in the grip of a constitutional crisis of unprecedented proportions about which it does not intend to act. With Republican Rep. Justin Amash already there, the question is whether this moves congressional Democrats, who hold the majority, or if they will instead settle for strong feelings about infrastructure.
For anyone who’s been hoping that Mueller is going to lead us out of this morass, well, no, he’s not. What he seems to have reinforced is that he doesn’t want to testify and that he didn’t want to talk publicly and that if Congress cannot show leadership on this question, that’s on Congress, not him. So, congressional Democrats waiting for a clear sign on what to do from their constituents will probably be waiting for a while—Mueller hardly delivered the resounding closing argument the voting public might have required. In his view, that argument rests in the penumbras and emanations of Volume 2 of his original report.
As an institutionalist, Mueller ends his tenure as he began it—defending the institution, up to and including Attorney General William Barr. His short remarks were centered around his explicit claim that “the work speaks for itself.” This implies that people have read the work, or will read it, or at the very least are getting their information from people who actually read it. That too is an aspirational claim in this current age.
But mostly, what Mueller proved definitively with his summary of the summary of the report is this: that if Congress opts to do nothing about foreign interference, it is Congress’ failure, not his. One clear message of Mueller’s brief statement, and indeed, the message of the entire first volume of his report, is that “Russian intelligence officers who are part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system” and that this attack occurred to the detriment of Hillary Clinton. This used to be a fact that would have united the American government behind some course of action. This no longer seems to be the case, and that is to our detriment. Again, Mueller told us all this two months ago.
Mueller also made clear that he was tasked with nothing more or less than doing a sweeping investigation. He said, in so many words, that obstruction of that investigation impaired the knowing of truth and that the president could not be cleared of such obstruction. If Congress opts to do nothing about those who obstructed or lied, they aid and abet that which “strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” the special counsel said today. He is, in a way, linking his own ability to finish the job to Congress’ unwillingness to do its own.
Regardless, Mueller’s tenure as America’s Facts Adult is thus over. The role of America’s Facts Adult will now be played by the House of Representatives. Whether anyone heard and understood that the handing over of the baton just happened, it happened. What happens next is solely within the control of Congress, which means we should all buckle in for a continuation of the Yanny-or-Laurel debate, with no particular end in sight.