Throughout Wednesday’s congressional hearings with former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, I was reminded of the opening scene of the iconic “Pickle Rick” episode of the irreverent Adult Swim show, “Rick and Morty.”
“I turned myself into a pickle, Morty,” says Rick, formerly a genius mad scientist, now little more than a sentient gherkin, to his grandson.
“And?” Morty replies.
“And? What more do you want tacked on to this?”
On Wednesday, Mueller’s answers could be summed up: “I made a report. What more do you want tacked on to this?”
For hours Wednesday, Democrats maneuvered to get Mueller to state that President Trump clearly broke the law, that he would be facing criminal charges if he weren’t president and that he deserves impeachment. Republicans, meanwhile, seemed determined to get him to admit that his staff was biased against the president and that the Russia investigation was founded on Democrat-funded lies. To which Mueller replied with terse, often one-word answers that allowed him to evade making a political spectacle that would help one side or the other.
Mueller even walked back what had been his most explosive statement, a response to a question that indicated he would have charged Trump except for a Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. Mueller clarified that, as his report stated, department policy prevented him from even considering whether to accuse the president of a crime.
What the public was left with, then, was what it had going in: the Mueller report. And throughout Wednesday’s proceedings, you could almost hear Mueller asking, “That isn’t enough for you?”
“I don’t think you will review a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.” he told Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).
That thorough, fair investigation revealed that a foreign government tried to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, and Trump, if not in direct conspiracy with the Kremlin, at least welcomed the help. (“Problematic is an understatement,” Mueller said of the president’s 2016 praise for WikiLeaks, for example.)
The report also showed that several members of Trump’s circle were liars and criminals. And it showed that, once in office, Trump repeatedly tried to foil an investigation into himself and that inner circle, even at one point ordering Mueller’s termination as special counsel. These efforts might well have resulted in any other individual facing a federal criminal trial and jail time. But because Trump is president, and sitting presidents cannot be indicted, Mueller determined that he could not even entertain the possibility. This call, Mueller made clear once again Wednesday, was nothing like an exoneration. Perhaps significantly, Mueller agreed with Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) that a president could be indicted on a charge of obstruction after leaving office. As a prosecutor, Mueller felt constrained from saying more. As voters, Americans can connect the dots he assembled.
Among the most important things Mueller did Wednesday was condemn, in roundabout terms, Attorney General William P. Barr’s spin on his findings, standing behind a letter he sent Barr complaining that the attorney general’s public representations of his report were misleading. The point was this: Don’t listen to the president’s apologists at the Justice Department or in Congress. Don’t get distracted by conspiracy theories suggesting the Russia probe was an anti-Trump witch hunt all along.
Trashing the investigators is a last-resort argument for extreme partisans desperate to divert attention from the underlying wrongdoing. Read the report. Consider the real evidence. Those who have done so — Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), a former Republican who left the party after acknowledging the president’s misdeeds, comes to mind — have come to a different conclusion about the president’s behavior than the Republicans seeking to excuse a wayward president who has cowed them into complicity.