The story of the film so far

The top level news from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is important confirmation: the Russians did try to influence the outcome of our 2016 presidential election.  Based on Bill Barr’s summary of the report sent to Congress last Sunday, the only currently available report on the report’s contents (a source I choose to trust, as I trust the effort of Mueller’s team), we should now have no reasonable disagreement that Vladimir Putin’s government committed cyber war on our country, and that we should be doing something about it.  I know our president has belittled that notion in the past (disagreeing with the findings of our country’s intelligence community; not clear why), but if he’s going to accept the other conclusions from the Mueller investigation he’ll have a hard time disagreeing with this one by blaming the messenger.  (I say that despite Trump’s demonstrated disdain for anything approaching intellectual consistency, but still…)

Next up: Mueller does not find evidence to indicate that Trump or any of the people in his campaign intentionally or unintentionally worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”  I find I agree with the analysis that this is good news…for everybody.  For Trump, certainly, in that it seems to clear him from being pursued criminally in that respect, reduces the chance of impeachment proceedings, and provides a political boost for his 2020 campaign.  But also for our country, in that we can take some solace in knowing that our president and his people did not conspire with a foreign government to seize power.  This was never a given, sadly, so it’s good to know now.

I also agree with the many who argue for the public release of Mueller’s complete report.  A shorthand argument: if the report “completely exonerates” Trump, as he insists it does, then we should all get to share the happy details.  A good longer version comes from David French in Sunday’s National Review:

The American people need full disclosure — and not just of the Mueller report itself. We need to see relevant FISA applications, supporting documents, classified testimony, and any other evidence relevant to not just the Mueller investigation itself but also to the inception of the Trump–Russia investigation. This conclusion is rendered even more urgent by two important political realities.

The first relates to the obstruction of justice. As Barr explains in his letter, the Mueller report neither accuses Trump of committing obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation, nor does it exonerate him [emphasis added]. Instead, the attorney general and deputy attorney general (both Trump appointees) examined the evidence and concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient” to conclude that the president obstructed justice. Democrats will trust this conclusion exactly as much as Republicans would trust a Democratic attorney general to evaluate the actions of a Democratic president.

(snip)

…nothing in Barr’s letter excuses the fact that Trump hired and surrounded himself with some of the worst people in politics — felons and liars who sometimes committed crimes in the ham-handed attempt to cover up their own contacts or attempted contacts with Russian assets or operatives. The president’s personal lawyer, his campaign chair, his longtime friend and adviser, and his first national-security adviser (among others) each engaged in patterns of deception that were not only criminal, they created real and genuine alarm in fair-minded Americans that at least some people in the president’s inner circle were more than willing to work with our enemies abroad to gain financial or political advantage here at home.

But these facts notwithstanding, there are still grounds for immense relief that America’s most recent presidential election has been (further) legitimized and that years of speculation about President Trump’s ties to the Russian government have proven unfounded. These last 30 months of investigations — beginning well before Mueller’s appointment — are among the most divisive and contentious events in modern political history. As we wait to read the full report and move into the inevitable battles over its contents, we can be sure that more division and contention await. Yet today, at least, we can be grateful for the good news we have, and it is good news indeed.

Mark Joseph Stern echoes French’s argument in the sense that full disclosure of the Mueller report is also necessary for analysts to determine if Barr’s quick assessment and summary of the results of the 22-month investigation were an improper effort to head off further action against the president who appointed him to the job.

Barr outlined one key finding unambiguously: The Trump campaign, he wrote, did not coordinate with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. That conclusion will come as a great relief to the president and his supporters, if Mueller’s report is as clear-cut as Barr indicates. But the attorney general’s summary includes a second finding that is confusing and equivocal. Mueller, Barr wrote, left “unresolved” the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. He instead laid out “evidence of both sides” and allowed Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to use those findings to determine whether the president committed obstruction. On the basis of this evidence and analysis—which we cannot yet evaluate—Barr and Rosenstein decided that Trump did not commit such an offense.

This portion of the summary will remain a puzzle until Mueller’s report is released to the public. But Barr provided a clue to his reasoning, by suggesting that he did not see evidence Trump hampered the Russia probe with “corrupt intent.” As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has noted, it is hard to understand how Barr, or Mueller, or anyone, could gauge Trump’s intent, because the president has not been interviewed about his intentions. Why not? We know at least one person vigorously opposed to compelling Trump to submit to an interview: Bill Barr, whose 2018 memo declared that Mueller could not legally do so.

The full report will be beneficial to Congressional committees, too, to the extent that they are resolved to pull their heads out of their asses and start providing checks and balances of the executive branch rather than being the president’s cheering section and public defender.

So we wait, for…who knows how long.  Barr has said he’s all about the transparency, the president says he doesn’t mind at all if the report is made public, but there’s no requirement in law that it ever be released to anyone other than the AG nor any mention of a time limit for so doing.  That’s given Dahlia Lithwick time to bemoan the fact that facts don’t, in fact, seem to matter…that this issue has already devolved into political posturing and stupidity without most of us ever seeing what Mueller did, in fact, report.

Someday, when we’re sitting around the electronic campfires we’ve lit to pretend-warm the huts in our Mars colonies, we will tell our grandchildren about whatever vestigial memories we have of facts. Perhaps we will be able to date their demise to the 46-ish hours between the announcement on Friday, March 22, 2019, that Robert Mueller had submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr, and the letter Barr released on Sunday, March 24, 2019, which purported to summarize its contents and legal conclusions entirely.

In those 46 hours, there were exactly two facts known: that nobody else had been indicted by Mueller, and that Barr did not find any proposed action by Mueller to be “inappropriate or unwarranted.” That was, quite literally, all we knew. And into that void—that absence of facts—swept the spin. On Fox News, the declamation came forth that there had been an actual finding, of, what else, “no collusion.” Indeed, as Justin Peters noted, the television news station that exists exclusively to protect and defend the president’s preferred narrative declared, without basis in any publicly known or knowable fact, that it was “No Collusion Day!” While every other network was trying to parse out scenarios and future outcomes, and carefully explaining that nothing definitive had been shared with the public, conservative media and congressional Republicans were already claiming that the facts had been amassed, and assessed and released, and supported their cause. Were they clairvoyant? Did they have some insider information? No, they just had the special feeling they get at Fox: The facts are not material to the claim. In the absence of any knowable facts, Republicans declare victory and invent their own. In the absence of any knowable facts, Democrats declare defeat.

Still, you kinda feel like there’s so much more to know, so much more you want to know.  We need to know…

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It’s not all about Trump

…even if he thinks it is.  It’s not.  And I ran across an interesting column in today’s Washington Post which offers just six quotations as evidence that the weird-ass dysfunctionality of our politics, if not our society in general, is seen in more than just the batshit-crazy emanations from the Toddler in Chief.

He’s there on the list, of course, at #1, but not quite in the way I would have expected.  Writer James Hohmann turns to this week’s budget submission document from our “I’m all about business and will shrink the deficit and take care of the budget” president for the quote that shows there are still some adults standing watch in Washington who are trying to send a signal to the brainwashed (folks wearing red ball caps, to protect their very clean brains) about what this administration is doing to our economy:

“Even with high levels of economic growth, excessive deficits continue to threaten the Nation’s progress, and any unforeseen shocks to the economy could make deficits unsustainable,” it says. “If financial obligations continue to grow at the current pace, the Nation’s creditors may demand higher interest rates to compensate, potentially leading to lower private investment and a smaller capital stock, harming both American businesses and workers.”

It’s not that this budget submission is going to become law as is; Congress hardly ever passes the budget that any president proposes.  This one came from the man whose most significant achievement of his first year in office (just in under the wire) was to pass a giant tax cut that is already swelling the debt and the deficit.  I’ll admit that my federal income taxes were down for 2018 as compared to 2017 so I’m benefitting, at least in the short term.  I don’t know that any of us benefits in the long haul in an economy in which, as the White House itself warns, deficits are going to stay above a trillion dollars a year “for the foreseeable future” and that the national debt “will soon surpass a percent of GDP not seen since 1947.”  Hohmann notes, “The White House projects that the government will need to spend $482 billion on interest payments for the debt next year alone.  That’s more than the entire budget for Medicare.”  Good allocation of resources, Donnie.

Second quote, from the noted not-Trump hater Dick Cheney, who was talking tough with VP Pence about the administration’s foreign policy at a conservative function in Georgia last weekend:

“We’re getting into a situation when our friends and allies around the world that we depend upon are going to lack confidence in us. … I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”

I first thought the next thing to say here was to marvel that this Republican administration is frightening the previous Republican administration when it comes to dealing with our allies, but I decided that was wrong: it’s not fair to Republicans—the mass of good, not-crazy ones—to label Trump a Republican, and it’s no surprise that former diplomats and officials and the defense hierarchy disagree with Trump’s attitude of telling our allies to just shut up and be grateful we deign to be on their side.

Pence, unprepared for tough questions, mostly shrugged off Cheney’s concerns and praised Trump as a transformational leader. Reading the transcript shows what a total loyalist Pence has become to Trump. He staked out several positions that are at odds with the posture he took as a congressman and governor.

Moreover, the conversation between the two men who have held the No. 2 job underscored the deep fissures that remain inside the GOP over Trump’s foreign policy. It’s the same tension that led to Jim Mattis’s resignation in December as defense secretary after Trump abruptly announced the complete withdrawal of troops from Syria. The president eventually relented under pressure from hawks on the Hill. Some troops will stay.

Consider the other quotes: Nancy Pelosi thinks impeaching Trump is “not worth it” because it’s so divisive, Paul Ryan predicts Trump will lose in 202o if the race turns out to be “about Donald Trump and his personality,” Tucker Carlson doesn’t deny and doesn’t “bow to the mob—ever.  No matter what.” when he’s exposed for hateful comments made more than ten years ago (which should not to be confused with the hateful comments he makes on his Fox News Channel show these days with regularity).   They all offer us a chance to think, if we choose to.

Oh, wait, there was one more quote.  It was reported by people who were in attendance at a GOP fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, and was flatly not denied by the president’s press secretary:

“The Democrats hate Jewish people.”

Said Donald Trump.  No further discourse required.

Wait, you don’t suppose it really is all about Trump after all?  Do you?