Mueller is a Man of Principle — but it left him ill equipped to deal with Trump

When Robert Mueller held his press conference this morning, he took no questions, and indicated very clearly that if he was called to testify he would not go beyond the content already laid out in his report. If only he had been so clear and forthright during the course of his investigation.

Mueller should have broadcast at the start of the investigation, and not its conclusion, that he never intended to consider whether the President committed a federal crime. It would have undermined the Special Counsel’s Investigation by making explicit that the President was above the law, but this is in fact an inescapable reality of the process given the constraints he adopted in adhering to the Justice Department’s guidelines. In reality, Trump was never going to be held accountable because doing so would have been seen as political and uncouth, and these concerns with decorum also explain why in America white collar criminals and people of privilege are above the law.

And while the norms and institutions that Mueller used to conveniently tie his own hands are ultimately what provide the veneer of respectability to a process that refuses to hold elites to account, in this case the gulf between those norms and the President’s own public statements and actions have instead revealed the very fact they are designed to hide: that the process is not capable of holding anyone to account. While a reliance on norms and procedure normally shield elites from the wrath of a public, it is ironic that in trying to keep his hands clean of partisanship and politics Mueller has instead striped and laid bare the truth of such proceedings.

Robert Mueller is a man of norms and institutions left clinging to his principles in a swirling sea of chaos. He tries desperately to avoid the appearance of politics by insisting on not testifying, or trying to punt on the major questions of his investigation, failing to realize that even that choice is itself intensely political. As today’s press conference showcased, he is a man of a different time ill-equipped (like so much of Washington) to deal with the demands the current Administration has placed on American institutions. This is a man of principle who prefers the dignity of retiring to the spectacle of defending the report he spent two years preparing, but who in clinging to those principles enables the worst of the abuses of power by providing no corrective check.

The reality is that whether Mueller likes this new world or not we are living in it. America is as close to a constitutional crisis as we have ever been. No clever legal slight of hand can buffer against that. While it may be Mueller’s privilege to retreat from public life and hope someone else cleans up the mess, the reality is that it in failing to do the right thing, which required challenging the very norms he was trying to defend, he has undermined the very institution he was trying to protect. Much like Comey tried to calculate how to thread the needle and ended up with a mess of tangled thread, there was never going to be an easy path. There never is when the stakes are high. Mueller will be judged harshly by history as the wrong man at the wrong time, who chose in vain to try to wipe his hands clean rather than get them dirtier by continuing to dig. The reality is that no one comes out clean in this mess, no matter how carefully they try.

I write about economics, technology and media. My views are my own.

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