Ratcliffe Dices Wisdom
“Small” and “bully” are words presidential candidate Kamala Harris used recently to criticize President Trump. The provocation this time was Trump’s performance at his North Carolina rally on July 17. Unfortunately, Harris is wrong about the small part.
At that rally, Trump visibly savored his power over the crowd as it chanted xenophobic threats he incited with his slanderous diatribe against Rep. Ilhan Omar. During his tenure in office, Trump has cowed Republicans into a frenetic solidarity. He hamstrings Democrats. At congressional hearings, he exposes political foes to hostile questioning from his minions and rewards those minions with potent plugs for their reelection campaigns. And so Trump’s power and influence wax.
No, Trump may be a bully, but he is not small. Trump is huge. Whether good or bad, honest or corrupt, benevolent or greedy, Trump overwhelms. His match has yet to be found in battle, which he so effectively extended to Twitter. He mows people down.
Trump’s latest conquest was in forcing a reluctant Robert S. Mueller III to give testimony before two House committees for seven hours on July 24. The need for the hearings stemmed from Trump’s paralytic effect on Democrats. They had Mueller’s report – most of it – but lacked the confidence to move on the strength of the report alone. They needed the man himself to impress on the public what the report meant since they lacked the clout to do so. They also fervently hoped Mueller would hint at what follow-up actions they should take. If only they could cajole him to go so far.
And so hearings were set up to put Mueller in a headlock for questioning, which included a curiously savage browbeating from Republicans. A similar spectacle was conducted for Michael Cohen not so long ago. Both Mueller and Cohen had devastating evidence against Trump. Trump’s only chance to prevail was to discredit the witnesses by applying his frequently practiced ad hominem argumentation: speak not to the issue, but defame the characters and question the integrity of the witnesses, if possible crush them. Knowing just what to do, Trump’s minions worked away at Mueller with hammer and tongs.
Mueller’s halting testimony surprised everyone. Democrats were chagrined. Republicans were delighted, maintaining it exposed his shaky grasp of the material, incompetence, and failed leadership throughout the investigation. Others used Mueller’s faltering answers to discredit his integrity, objectivity, and honesty. A few observed that Mueller looked just plain old, with Rachel Maddow among the latter. Maddow has depth, sensitivity, and smarts; she should have exercised them in this case, but cameras, ratings, and media hype can go to the best of heads, and got to hers.
No wonder Mueller was reluctant to testify. Possessed of foresight unmatched by his interrogators, Mueller could see what was coming. What no one expressed is how honest answers might sound coming from someone who:
- must sift through a copious amount of information resulting from a two-year investigation of stultifying complexity;
- is highly restricted by the Department of Justice about what he may say, but which blacklist remains undisclosed to others;
- is forbidden to discuss areas under investigation in other cases;
- is resolved to confine his answers to content in the report;
- is under oath to answer as fully, honestly, and accurately as the constraints allow;
- must answer leading questions posed by highly skilled committee members with their own agenda about what they want Mueller’s answers to mean;
- is obliged to suffer rhetorical sucker punches if examiners choose to land them prior to posing their questions;
- must provide answers within the slender allotment of time questioners decide to grant of their own five-minute shot at him. (Some questioners, deciding their shots were more important than Mueller’s answers, cut Mueller off more than once.)
To abide by the conditions imposed on him yet answer with the same concern for truthfulness and accuracy with which the investigation was conducted, Mueller might require some time to answer. But Republicans do not credit Mueller with a commitment to truth and were quick to claim that his slow speech betrayed a continuing attempt to deceive. That stance is necessary if they are to defend Trump, who has declared hundreds of times that the investigation is a witch hunt run by a biased and angry Mueller.
We know why Trump defends his innocence: to continue pursuing his self-glorifying schemes, now of global reach and limitless expense account, with nothing to stop him if shifty Mueller can be put away. The question is why do leading Republicans believe Trump? No shred of evidence has been unearthed by friend or foe to support Trump’s innocence of anything but knowledge, except from those long steeped in suspicion themselves.
The fierce Republican allegiance is bizarre when you consider their equation: If Trump – a man tarnished by bad policy decisions, extravagance that is straining the world’s largest economy, comradely support for acknowledged foes, foul rhetoric, shaky personal and financial dealings, questionable ethical conduct, a string of bankruptcies, a continuous public record of lying and misrepresenting facts, and scores of lawsuits from individuals and U.S. states alike – is innocent, then Mueller, a man about whom there had been no whiff of corruption or bias until Trump vilified him, is a scoundrel. They went with Trump and after Mueller.
Hanging over everyone’s head – sweet chariot or ax, depending on where they sit – was Mueller’s clear and repeated statement that the report did not exonerate Trump. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas did his best to demolish the assertion during the House Judiciary committee hearing, which required him to pull Mueller apart. In a rapidly spoken, fiery preamble laden with negatives and conditions, Ratcliffe lambasted Mueller, saying essentially (when you remove the conditions and negatives, and wind him down a bit) that in an American court of law the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. Since Mueller could not prove Trump’s guilt, Ratcliffe expounded, Trump is and remains innocent; in the framework of U.S. law, no one alive can exonerate an innocent man. Ratcliffe was pleased with his bombast; so was Trump, who nominated him for the position of Director of National Intelligence shortly thereafter. It was a gratuitous gesture, as we all know patriotism for Ratcliffe, as for us all, is reward enough.
Mueller told Ratcliffe that this case was unique, but his words were barely audible, and Ratcliffe dismissed them to pursue what he considered his crippling strategy. Yet, Ratcliffe was only splitting hairs in an effort to obfuscate.
Exoneration can mean clearing someone from a charge. It can also mean clearing someone of an accusation. The investigation was set up to determine if there was any basis to allegations that Trump obstructed justice; if there were, it would indicate that Trump could be accused of committing a crime. Accusing Trump of committing a crime would lead to charging a sitting president, which Mueller was not authorized to do and from which action Mueller duly refrained. Mueller also refrained from saying whether the investigation found that Trump could be charged, which frustrated Democrats no end. But neither did Mueller exonerate Trump.
Though it puzzled many, Mueller’s arrival at that position shows that he understood the implications of his constraints far better than his examiners. And he adhered to those constraints with a loyalty they cannot fathom.
Mueller’s logic: The Office of Legal Council states a sitting president cannot be indicted. Therefore, Mueller could not bring charges. An honest and fair judicial system – as the U.S. system is considered to be – runs like clockwork, with no surprises as far as process is concerned. If Mueller stated he found reason to charge Trump but lacked the authority to do so, process would kick in as surely as if Mueller had charged Trump himself. Mueller knew that, which would make him indirectly responsible for charging a sitting president, something he was not permitted to do. On the other hand, Mueller was obliged to write a truthful report. To avoid making a truthful statement either in the report or under oath that would lead to Trump’s indictment, Mueller rigorously refrained from considering Trump’s guilt at all. Yet, tellingly, he did not exonerate Trump. In the words of Jerry Nadler: “The report did not conclude that he [Trump] did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?” “That is correct,” Mueller answered. That was the clarion call for the appropriate bodies to take up the baton.
For this work, Congress requires the unredacted report and underlying evidence gathered during the investigation. The Department of Justice has refused to release key information. Without it, the relevant committees would have to start their work from scratch, only to hear, as has been hooted at them before, that they are calling witnesses who already testified for hours on end, not to mention the cost of repeating the work. The Democrats, who find all this alarming, are hamstrung once again. Yet the charge from Mueller is clear: “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrong doing.” That throws it back to Congress where the matter rests at the moment.
In a backward look, no one has appreciated Mueller’s chivalry in steadfastly hewing to his mandate: neither charging the president nor implying charges are in order; a masterly accomplishment considering the circumstance under which Mueller was questioned. Mueller’s patriotism has also been cruelly maligned. For nearly seven hours, in response to intense, often battering questions, he patiently reached down into a morass of hairy details to pull up for his doubting questioners such truth as he was allowed to divulge in such a way as not to incriminate the man the enormous framework was constructed to protect: Trump.
Despite all the ridicule, contempt, and taunting his foes could deal him, Mueller stuck to his guns. And Trump, whom the law has not yet touched, remains at large – and huge.