May 29, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

What Mueller Is Really Saying

Congress must judge Trump's criminality as well as his legitimacy.

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So Robert Mueller spoke for the first time Wednesday. Let’s talk about what it means.

First new facts. One, he’s now resigned. He’s closing the special counsel’s office. His long labor is over. He’s moving on, I think, to a well-deserved rest and retirement.

Two, he won’t be talking anymore. His two-volume report, Mueller said, speaks for itself. It’s the only thing House Democrats will get in the way of congressional testimony. The Democrats may obtain the report’s underlying evidence, but that has nothing now to do with him. (The Democrats may subpoena Mueller; unlike the Trump administration officials, he’s honor-bound to comply, but that’s for later.)

Other than that, Mueller said nothing new. Whatever insights we glean are a matter of subjective interpretation. But it’s pretty clear what Mueller was saying. I’ve honored my end of the bargain, he said in essence. Now it’s up to the US Congress and the American people to decide whether Donald Trump is 1) a legitimate president and 2) a criminal. He’s not going tell us which. We have to do that work for ourselves.


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During the course of his investigation, Mueller said he did not, and would not, consider accusing the president of obstructing justice, because it’s unfair to accuse anyone of wrongdoing when they can’t defend themselves in court. And since a president can’t defend himself in court, per a US Department of Justice’s long-standing policy, Mueller wasn’t going to accuse the president of wrongdoing.

You can say that policy is wrong or outdated (it comes from the Nixon era, after all), but you can’t say Mueller’s reasons for obeying it are unsound. All things considered, criminal justice is probably the wrong way to hold a corrupt president accountable, because the US Constitution provides a path via impeachment and removal.

Basically Mueller was saying this: I’m not going to accuse Donald Trump of committing crimes, because it’s not my place to accuse this or any president of committing crimes. But I’m also not going to say he didn’t commit a crime, because I’m a man of integrity. So I’m going to walk a fine line, hoping other Americans of integrity fill in the gaps. The result of such hairsplitting is stuff like this: “If we had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Translation: Trump committed crimes, but only the US Congress has the authority to say so, then do something about it. Or not. Inaction, too, is up to the Congress.

But our interpretation shouldn’t end there. Mueller did not begin or end today’s brief statement with Trump’s crimes (at least 10, per his report). He began and ended with the office’s chief finding, which is that the Kremlin sabotaged Hillary Clinton.

Of course, he didn’t say that.

Saying that would be appear partisan, which he knew would undermine the integrity of his investigation. So Mueller said this instead: The Russians “stole private information and then released that information through fake online identities, and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate” (my italics).

Being seen as an illegitimate president is Trump’s greatest fear.

He ended his statement on a similar patriotic note. He repeated “the central allegation of our indictments: That there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Officials don’t repeat themselves without meaning to. Mueller could be trying to soften the implication that Trump committed crimes, but I don’t think he was doing only that. I think he was trying to get Americans, but especially the press corps, to understand the real stakes here. We were attacked, and the attack yielded a result, which is an illegitimate American president. That result should not be received with a complacent shrug. Indeed, it “deserves the attention of every American.”

The press, the Democrats, and virtually everyone who’s had anything at all to say about the Mueller investigation (myself included) have given the lion’s share of his and her attention to criminality. For many of us, Trump’s crimes warrant impeachment.

But what if that’s backwards. What if, as Tom Coleman argued, he should be impeached for illegitimacy? In the Kansas City Star, the former GOP congressman said:

While Mueller did not find sufficient evidence that Trump or his campaign had violated a criminal statute, the net effect was that the Trump campaign encouraged a foreign adversary to use and misrepresent stolen information on social media platforms to defraud U.S. voters. Because the presidency was won in this way, the president’s election victory brought forth nothing less than an illegitimate presidency.

That’s my stress, as it should be. Being seen as an illegitimate president is Trump’s greatest fear. He has said so himself in published reports. There’s good reason for that—it’s true. Con men don’t fear much, but they fear gravely revealed truth.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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