After two years of President Trump and his team decrying special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” Mueller suddenly found himself in for some rare praise on Monday.
After Mueller declined to accuse Trump of crimes, Trump was asked whether his professed nemesis had acted “honorably,” and he said he had. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Mueller did a “great job.” Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani agreed that “the fact that he couldn’t find evidence is a testament to the fact that he is an honest man.” And fellow Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said, “I think that Robert Mueller did the job he was assigned to do.” He added that “he did it as a professional, and I am pleased with the result.”
By Monday night, though, the emphasis seemed to change.
Appearing on both Fox News and CNN, Giuliani went after Mueller anew. He laid into Mueller’s decision to qualify his decision on obstruction of justice by saying he didn’t “exonerate” Trump either. That portion has put a very significant dent into the Trump team’s desire to claim the report as a complete exoneration of Trump.
Directly contradicting his colleague Sekulow, Giuliani called Mueller’s act “unprofessional.” He also called it a “cheap shot.”
“Usually prosecutors just say we’re not going to go forward with the case,” Giuliani said (correctly). “Mueller put in this thing about, he didn’t commit a crime, but I can’t exonerate him. That is totally unprofessional. You’re not supposed to say that.”
Giuliani then suggested the equivocation showed Mueller was too concerned about public perception.
“The guy got paid somewhere upwards of $30 million, but he couldn’t make the key decision,” Giuliani said, apparently transposing Mueller’s personal compensation with the cost of the probe. “His hands were shaking. He probably had — you know, he had Jekyll and Hyde, he had the bad guys and the good guys.”
Appearing on CNN, Giuliani echoed the “cheap shot” and “unprofessional” lines.
“They don’t have to exonerate him; you’ve got to prove he’s guilty — even for impeachment,” Giuliani said. “This is a cheap shot ... This is unprofessional.”
He added: “It’s not objective. It’s a cheap shot.”
And then this:
CHRIS CUOMO: It is a little curious that the A.G. wound up having the call, would have been better if Mueller made the call —
GIULIANI: Mueller couldn’t decide between contending factions.
CUOMO: I understand, but that wasn’t his job.
GIULIANI: Shame on him.
CUOMO: His job was to make a call.
GIULIANI: He should return some of the money we spent.
Giuliani is correct that Mueller’s decision not to accuse Trump but also not to exonerate him was an unusual move for a prosecutor. Generally speaking, they only deal with whether evidence exists to charge a crime. If it doesn’t exist, they simply decline to. Mueller seemed to be trying to split the baby, and he wound up leaving this decision to others. Attorney General William P. Barr then decided to exonerate Trump himself — a decision that was fraught for a number of reasons, most notably because Barr is a recent Trump appointee.
But the discordant reactions to Mueller’s conclusions from the Trump team betray the uncertainty that remains around the actual Mueller report — as opposed to Barr’s summary of its major findings.
It’s tempting for the Trump team to claim complete exoneration now that Trump has been spared of criminal accusations. This was a big day for Trump. At the same time, just as we don’t know the full context of Mueller’s report, neither does Trump. What we do know is that, given Mueller’s decision to emphasize he’s not exonerating Trump, there is likely a good bit of derogatory information. Setting the expectation at complete exoneration and praising Mueller too heartily means, if and when we do get the report and it’s damaging-but-not-criminal, those words can be thrown back in the Trump team’s face.
We’ll see how the Trump team continues to handle this in the days ahead, but Giuliani’s performance on Monday night suggests it is still girding for some bad news.