Except Mueller proved to be neither. He was, above all, “a rule-following Justice Department near lifer who didn’t want to step too far outside his assigned lane,” a meticulous and honorable man concerned with behaving fairly — to a fault — toward the president and avoiding the endless investigations of special prosecutors past. For all of Trump’s complaints about the left lean of Mueller’s star lawyers, that was never their most relevant trait. “More important than the political inclinations of Mueller’s team was their professional training as prosecutors, and those honed instincts limited their ambitions,” Toobin contends.
Even as Mueller and his staff pursued leads, evidence and witnesses, their restraint worked to Trump’s advantage at three pivotal moments: when Mueller chose not to dig into the president’s finances; when he declined to subpoena Trump for a personal interview; and, above all, when Mueller opted against stating in his report what the facts showed: that Trump had engaged in obstruction of justice.
“These were choices, and costly ones,” Toobin asserts. Trump and his supporters assailed the investigation at every turn, but Mueller was his own worst enemy.
Mueller did not “save us,” as the president’s critics had hoped, because he was never going to. He never meant to. That wasn’t how he saw his job, and popular fascination with Mueller only reaffirmed his narrow view of his mandate. Opposite him stood men such as Rudy Giuliani, who served as the president’s personal lawyer, and Attorney General William Barr, who pretty much did, too. The contrasting values and objectives of these individuals form the essence of this book and, to a large extent, explain Trump’s ability to emerge unscathed even though, as Toobin puts it, “everyone — friends as well as enemies — knew what he had done.”
A staff writer for the New Yorker and a legal analyst for CNN, Toobin has written books on the Bill Clinton investigation and the Iran-contra scandal; he had served as a young prosecutor in the latter case. A Toobin book on the Trump investigations seemed inevitable. In an author’s note, Toobin says he interviewed members of Mueller’s staff, subjects and witnesses in the probe, Trump’s legal team and members of his administration, as well as lawmakers. Specific sources usually go unnamed, and Toobin also relies on reporting and analysis by The Washington Post, the New York Times, Lawfare and others. Put together, this all gives the book an authoritative, omniscient-narrator quality, particularly when Toobin goes inside the deliberations of Mueller and his team.
In Mueller’s first meeting with FBI officials as special counsel, he is informed about the targets the bureau had been pursuing — Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, as well as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and, of course, Trump himself. Mueller regarded that list as setting the contours of his investigation, Toobin reports. Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had hired Mueller for the job, cautioned him against an endless, Ken Starr-style fishing expedition.
As a result, Mueller “did not use the FBI information as a jumping-off point for a deeper examination of Trump’s history and finances — to explore, for example, why Trump had a special affinity for Russia and its leader,” Toobin explains. He did not subpoena the president’s financial records or obtain his tax returns, the author says, because Mueller was focused on ascertaining Trump’s intent (the knowledge that what you’re doing is wrong) more than his possible motive, which the president’s finances could have revealed. Toobin says Mueller’s decision was “defensible” — faint praise — but adds, “that doesn’t mean that it was correct.”
Throughout the investigation, Trump often insisted that he was eager for an interview with Mueller’s team, and a tentative date was even set, for Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, at Camp David. But the president’s attorneys dragged it out (“If you were me, would you allow him to do that?” a Trump lawyer asked Mueller), and the special counsel never really fought back, avoiding the court battle that a subpoena would have inevitably produced. Instead he agreed to written questions, which resulted in nearly useless written answers from Trump and his lawyers. “In this critical moment,” Toobin concludes, “Mueller showed weakness.”
So much has already been written on this period that stretches of Toobin’s book feel like a smart recap of the past four years, punctuated by insider details about the investigations and Toobin’s judgments on the lawyering skills and ethics of various players. The author has no patience for James Comey’s sanctimony and “faux humility.” (This reader of Comey’s 2018 memoir would not disagree.) Rosenstein is “disoriented and out of his depth,” committing legal and political “malpractice” by letting Trump use him to justify Comey’s firing. And Barr is “sycophantic,” a “toady” who evolved from “principled conservative to Trump apologist.”
Mueller’s staff, meanwhile, is holed up in a Washington office building called, yes, Patriots Plaza, where they stress about secrecy, put on weight (the “Mueller 15,” they joke) and endure cutting remarks from their impatient boss (“Are you done playing with your food?” Mueller asks when he senses equivocation from subordinates). In a rare laugh about the pressures the team faced, two of Mueller’s top prosecutors, Andrew Weissmann and Jeannie Rhee, received baseball caps labeled “Angry Dem #1” and “Angry Dem #2,” as gifts from Rhee’s husband.
Toobin suggests that Mueller’s isolation made him overthink things. The special counsel considered himself bound, correctly so, by the Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But Mueller went further, deciding that his report could not explain in plain language that the president — by interfering in the FBI’s investigation of Flynn and repeatedly seeking to undermine or fire the special counsel — had broken the law. Instead, the special counsel, worried that Trump would have no legal forum in which to contest the accusation, offered the not-guilty-yet-not-exonerated conclusion that perplexed so many readers of Mueller’s 2019 report.
“That was simply a gift to Trump,” Toobin laments, a gift that Barr used to exonerate the president in a public letter that left members of Mueller’s staff “incandescent with fury.” But some of that anger should have been directed inward. Not only did their report’s opaque phrasing give Barr an opening, but as Toobin notes (and as Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig previously reported in “A Very Stable Genius”), Mueller’s team also declined an invitation from the Justice Department to review the letter before the attorney general released it. “Barr was able to perform his partisan dismantling of the Mueller Report,” Toobin writes, “only because the special counsel and his staff gave him the chance.”
The latter third of “True Crimes and Misdemeanors” covers the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden, plus the impeachment and Senate trial that followed. It is a less riveting narrative, in part because the outcome seemed so preordained. But spanning both episodes is a figure who emerges as an antihero in the Trump-Russia-Ukraine saga: Giuliani.
He may not prove as integral to this period as Mueller, Comey or Barr, but Giuliani played critical roles that first helped and later undermined the president. As Trump’s attorney, Giuliani relentlessly attacked the straight-shooting special counsel, depicting Mueller as “just another Trump enemy,” Toobin writes. And despite his unhinged television hits — truth isn’t truth! — Giuliani helped negotiate the compromise whereby the president provided written responses to limited questions from the special counsel, thus helping Trump avoid what would have been a ruinous interview with Mueller.
But then, as a freelance secretary of state, Giuliani abetted Trump in the disastrous Ukraine operation, “probably the greatest failure of lawyering in the history of presidential scandals,” Toobin writes. Enabling Trump’s worst instincts, Giuliani nudged him toward impeachable offenses.
There are also deeper connections. Toobin looks upon Giuliani’s tenure as New York mayor, full of “belligerence, racial animus, and cultural grievance,” and sees a prototype for the 45th president, who “tracked the ideological grooves that Giuliani laid down.” Never forget that Rudy was the only supporter to defend Trump on the Sunday television shows after the “Access Hollywood” video became public in October 2016. These guys were made for each other.
And Mueller, the tale’s faltering hero, was made for another time, his impulses as honorable as they were self-defeating. “Mueller had come of age in a different era in American justice and American life, when modesty and self-effacement were ascendant values,” Toobin concludes. “There was something admirable in his embrace of this vanishing world. Then and always, he kept to his code of personal honor . . . and that was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.”