Monday, August 10, 2020

Toobin examines Mueller investigation in new book

Katie Benner's New York Times review of Jeffrey Toobin's latest book, “True Crimes and Misdemeanors," wherein the author explains why President Trump came out basically unscathed, despite the fact that, as he writes, the president “never really pretended to be anything other than what he was — a narcissistic scoundrel.” He rightly argues that the investigation was an utter political failure.

Mueller ran a by-the-book, narrow inquiry and adhered to Justice Department rules that bar comment about ongoing investigations. He provided ample evidence that the president broke the law, but in the end he would not clearly say as much. His equivocation provided the president room to declare that Mueller found “no collusion and no obstruction.” Toobin says that this half-truth and falsehood, respectively, were a rhetorical success because “simplicity rarely loses to complexity in battles in the public square.”

Trump, bound by very little, used his pulpit to misrepresent the investigation as an out-of-control witch hunt and the investigators as partisan liars and leakers. Neither Mueller nor the Justice Department fought back, which Toobin says let Trump publicly define the special counsel’s work.

Toobin’s narrative unfolds like a tragedy. Before and after the tumult of the 2016 election, the Justice Department investigated the Trump campaign for ties to Russia; once in office the president opposed their work. As Trump pressured department officials to protect his associates, Mueller was quietly tapped in May 2017 to serve as special counsel and take over the investigation.

That Trump would eventually undermine Mueller seemed absurd on its face. Their résumés paint them as nearly caricatures of a hero and a villain: Mueller a decorated Vietnam War veteran and devoted civil servant who led the F.B.I. in the aftermath of 9/11; Trump a dishonest businessman and D-list reality show star who once described dodging sexually transmitted diseases as his “personal Vietnam.” Simply presenting them side by side “is to challenge the conventions of journalistic balance,” Toobin writes.

Toobin primarily relies on details from the Mueller report and the public record to reconstruct the investigation, but his own reporting yields striking new information, especially in the case against the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company that weaponized social media to manipulate voters. It was Facebook itself that brought the special counsel evidence that the Russian outfit had used the platform to help Trump. Jeannie Rhee, the Mueller team member who built the case against the I.R.A. for defrauding the United States, faced a quandary. The company hadn’t hacked Facebook or committed a traditional cybercrime. In fact, it used the platform as intended, sharing viral information that influenced users. Employed as designed, Facebook had become the perfect weapon, but how did that violate United States law?

That question foreshadowed one of the investigation’s central dilemmas: What do you do when you uncover acts that don’t explicitly violate the law but that clearly seem wrong?

Mueller’s prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Trump team coordinated with Russia, even though campaign associates seemed aware that the Kremlin was interfering in ways that likely favored them. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, shared polling data with an oligarch linked to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet at Trump Tower with a lawyer who represented Russian interests, after being told that he might obtain negative information about Hillary Clinton. But neither of those facts led to charges.

The 2017 revelation about the I.R.A. was part of the special counsel’s whirlwind first year. In the fall it unsealed a guilty plea from the former campaign associate George Papadopoulos, who had lied to investigators. It indicted Manafort for financial crimes related to his lobbying work for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. It then indicted the I.R.A. for interfering in the election, as well as other Russian operatives for hacking the Democrats. And in November it had what felt like an enormous breakthrough: Don McGahn, the White House counsel, told Mueller’s team that Trump had demanded that he fire Mueller — the clearest evidence yet that the president obstructed justice.

But at that point, the investigation stalled and never regained momentum, in large part, Toobin says, because Mueller was overly cautious. He chose not to probe Trump’s financial ties to Russia, examine his personal finances or obtain his tax returns. Investigators tried other methods to establish connections between Trump and Russia but the president’s associates stymied efforts to penetrate Trump’s orbit.

Mueller didn’t subpoena Trump after he reneged on an agreement to be interviewed at Camp David in January 2018 — which Trump saw as a sign of weakness and Toobin as Mueller’s key misstep. Trump was further emboldened in May, when Mueller’s deputies told the White House that they would not indict the president, in deference to a Justice Department legal opinion on the matter. Trump’s public attacks helped to end the bipartisan support that Mueller initially enjoyed, and made it nearly impossible for Congress to use his findings as the basis for oversight measures, or even impeachment, once opinion about him broke along party lines.

Toobin’s absorbing, fast-paced narrative is anchored by detailed scenes of chaos inside the Trump administration and meetings between Trump’s and Mueller’s lawyers. But it provides no hard information about how and why Mueller came to make his most significant and ill-fated decisions. As a former prosecutor and legal analyst, Toobin can offer somewhat satisfying educated guesses, but ultimately Mueller’s caution and restraint remain an enigma.

What is clear is that the Mueller investigation ultimately taught Trump that he could largely act with impunity. No one in his administration, or in any other branch of government, stopped him from attacking the Russia probe, dodging an interview with Mueller’s team and dangling pardons before witnesses to keep them from cooperating with investigators. He emerged from the two-year inquiry unbroken, unbowed and emboldened. And before the ink was dry on the report, he embarked on an effort to strong-arm Ukraine into announcing that it would investigate Joe Biden and his son. It also taught the American people that our system of checks and balances no longer works when Congress believes it should enable, rather than oversee, the president.

The Mueller report has been eclipsed by a parade of fresh crises, and its immediacy has faded. A whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine led to his impeachment this past winter. A pandemic has resulted in over 150,000 American deaths and brought the economy to a standstill. And several recent killings of unarmed Black people sparked a summer of nationwide protests and a revived civil rights movement.

But Toobin’s larger argument is that Trump’s attacks on democracy will grow only more extreme in the months to come. If he is right, then “True Crimes and Misdemeanors” stands as a chilling preview of what to expect should Trump win a second term, and also as a road map for all that needs repair should he lose.

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