The Mueller report is that rare Washington tell-all that surpasses its pre-publication hype.
Sure, it is a little longer than necessary. Too many footnotes and distracting redactions. The writing is often flat, and the first half of the book drags, covering plenty of terrain that has been described elsewhere. The story shifts abruptly between riveting insider tales and dense legalisms. Its protagonist doesn’t really come alive until halfway through, once Volume I (on Russian interference) gives way to Volume II (on obstruction of justice). The title — far too prosaic, really — feels like a missed opportunity. And it hardly helps that the book’s earliest reviewer, Attorney General William Barr, seems to have willfully misunderstood the point of it; he probably should not have been assigned to review it at all.
Yet as an authoritative account, the Mueller report is the best book by far on the workings of the Trump presidency. It was delivered to the attorney general but is also written for history. The book reveals the president in all his impulsiveness, insecurity and growing disregard for rules and norms; White House aides alternating between deference to the man and defiance of his “crazy s---” requests; and a campaign team too inept to realize, or too reckless to care, when they might have been bending the law. And special counsel Robert Mueller has it all under oath, on the record, along with interviews and contemporaneous notes backing it up. No need for a “Note on Use of Anonymous Sources” disclaimer. Mueller doesn’t just have receipts — he seems to know what almost everyone wanted to buy.
Befitting a best-selling work of political nonfiction — less than 24 hours after the report went online Thursday, paperback versions took the top two spots in Amazon’s new-release sales ranking — the Mueller report has its miniseries-ready signature moments. There is the obligatory expletive for the ages, when President Trump learns that Mueller has been appointed as special counsel. “This is the end of my presidency,” he moans. “I’m fucked.” There is the embarrassing contradiction from the president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who told reporters that countless FBI employees loved the firing of director James Comey but then admits to investigators that she’d made it up. (Though, in truth, it’s only embarrassing if Sanders maintains any residual capacity for said emotion.) There’s the contrast between the president’s public bluster, evident in his Twitter rants, and his private diffidence, embodied in Trump’s lawyerly written responses to Mueller’s queries, full of “I do not recall” and “I have no recollection.”
And there is the inevitable Nixonian reference, as when White House counsel Don McGahn refuses the president’s request to instruct the deputy attorney general to dismiss Mueller, because McGahn worried about unleashing a new Saturday Night Massacre.
In its portrait of the Trump campaign and White House, the Mueller report also echoes recent, high-profile works. The mix of incompetence, disorganization and self-interest evident here evokes Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” which depicts a Trump inner circle both unprepared and uninterested in actually governing. In the Mueller report, top members of the Trump team take meetings with foreign representatives without so much as Googling their names. A random hedge fund manager friendly with Jared Kushner ends up co-writing a memo on U.S.-Russian relations that Kushner delivers to incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Donald Trump Jr. probably doesn’t know enough about campaign finance laws to grasp the legal peril of the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. And even candidate Donald Trump admits the purpose of his presidential bid when he suggests to personal lawyer Michael Cohen “that his campaign would be a significant ‘infomercial’ for Trump-branded properties.”
The mob-like mentality among the Trump team that Comey describes in his 2018 memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” reappears in the Mueller report, with the president delegating dirty assignments to outside players and demanding loyalty above everything. But where Comey perceived total control by the boss, Mueller shows top aides undermining, slow-walking or simply ignoring the president’s more outlandish instructions. It is reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s best-selling “Fear,” in which White House economic officials derail the president’s effort to blow up a free-trade agreement with South Korea by stealing a letter off the president’s desk. Aside from McGahn refusing to help oust Mueller, we see former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, among the most obsequious of the president’s loyalists, declining to deliver a message to Jeff Sessions urging the attorney general to publicly defend the president and limit the special counsel’s investigation. In a sense, the Mueller report reads like a dozen anonymous New York Times op-eds from that internal White House resistance, except they are far more detailed — and they’re signed.
The Mueller report is not beautifully written. These are lawyers, not stylists, and the book’s power rests not in its prose but in its overwhelming authority. Yet even that authority has limits, as does the document’s scope. The report expertly documents Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 election, for instance, but does not really reveal the impact of that interference. The omniscient narrator, described most often as “the Office,” is an essential player in the drama, but the special counsel’s own actions, reactions and impressions are largely absent. (Leave that for the journalists to ferret out — or for a blockbuster Mueller memoir.)
And though Volume II of the Mueller report offers a devastating, point-by-point portrayal of the president’s efforts to interfere in the investigation against him, Mueller stops short of declaring criminality. Not because, as Barr initially implied, he was simply unable to make up his mind. Part of his reasoning, Mueller lays out in the report, was that “a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.”
“Constitutional processes” — it’s a nice euphemism. Others have been less circumspect. In his 1998 report on the Clinton and Lewinsky saga, independent counsel Kenneth Starr declared grounds for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the opening paragraph. In the Watergate Special Prosecution Force Report of 1975, published a few months after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, investigators detailed their deliberations on whether to indict Nixon while he was in office. Though they found no constitutional basis for a president to be “immune from the ordinary process of criminal law,” prosecutors wrote, they also considered that a lengthy legal proceeding would undermine the president’s ability to govern and that “the impeachment process should take precedence over a criminal indictment.”
The Mueller report spans 448 pages over two volumes, and it is tempting to view it as the definitive insider account of the Trump presidency, as most tell-alls purport to be. But it is not. Mueller’s work is done, yes. But how we — and the president — respond to it now will mark the first of several volumes to come.