Three cheers for this guy. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Why do I find the summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr to be something of a relief?
Firstly, I’m relieved as an American that a serious and dogged prosecutor deemed it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president of the United States had knowingly conspired with a foreign government to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election. It’s not exactly a high bar, I know, but we have been failing to reach the lowest bars lately, so count me a happy person. I’m glad, simply, that the worst doesn’t appear to be true. I prefer my presidents not to be traitors.
Second, we were able to hold an independent inquiry into a serious question of electoral malfeasance and see it to a conclusion, without Mueller being fired, or the inquiry blocked, or stymied. When push came to shove, the Congress protected Mueller, despite an avalanche of abuse and propaganda directed toward him. And the president didn’t fire him, which, let’s be honest, we were all fearing he would. We ducked that particular constitutional crisis.
More to the point, in what was an inevitably fraught political moment, Robert Mueller conducted himself impeccably. How thrilling to hear absolutely nothing from him. I don’t even know what his voice sounds like. The lack of leaks or grandstanding; the efficiency and obvious rigor of the process; the resistance to becoming the Resistance: Mueller single-handedly showed that the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law can be upheld even as most of the political actors, especially the president, have been behaving like bit players in a banana republic.
Give it up for old-school WASP Republican values! And in this, Mueller is someone we should study if we want to see how to oppose this president effectively. You can’t out-tweet or out-insult the clinically narcissistic and characterologically disgusting. You cannot beat him at his own game. But you can consistently refuse to take his boorish bait and maintain your own standards of conduct. You can calmly stare down a bully, and you can let your actions speak louder than your words.
In a world of endless distraction, Mueller kept his focus. It is hard not to see the inquiry as an epic cultural and moral clash between the honorable American and the irredeemably ugly one; between the war-hero public servant and a draft-dodging liar and thug; between elegant, understated class and fathomless, bullhorn vulgarity. In a liberal society, it really does matter more that the rules are fair than that any side wins. Mueller walked that line — and did not fall off it, as, for example, James Comey did.
Above all, I’m grateful Mueller did not find a clear-cut case of provable treasonous criminality either on the president’s part or his family’s. The reason I’m relieved is that, however grave the crime, Trump would almost certainly have gotten away with it. In our current politics, there is simply no way for this Senate to convict Trump of an impeachable offense. And so there was always a real danger that this entire ordeal would end with an obviously proven high crime and misdemeanor, a thereby unavoidable impeachment process, and then an inevitable failure to convict in the Senate. And so Trump would become an openly criminal president, a walking inversion of the rule of law, leverage impeachment into his reelection, and our slide into strongman politics would have accelerated still further.