Pundit corps' latest god fails: "If I've lost Maureen Dowd, I've lost the country!" So President Johnson once said.
Actually, LBJ was talking about losing Walter Cronkite. But Robert J. Mueller—Mueller the God—does seem to have lost Maureen Dowd.
Dowd has quit Robert J. Mueller. She described a state of terminal confusion in Sunday's New York Times:
DOWD (6/2/19): Barr is not so much the attorney general as the minister of information. His interview with Crawford was tactically brilliant. Barr once more deftly took advantage of the fact that Mueller, with his impenetrable legalese and double negatives, has handcuffed himself.In all honesty, the statements Dowd quotes aren't all that hard to parse. Technically, they contain no double negatives.
Even when the reclusive and mute Mueller finally stepped up to the lectern on Wednesday, he was still hiding.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” said Mueller, sounding like Odysseus struggling to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
Mueller is as elliptical as Barr is diabolical. The special counsel is clearly frustrated that we don’t understand his reasoning. But his reasoning is nonsensical.
Beyond that, Mueller's overall "reasoning" actually makes fairly good sense, though only of a type:
"If I can't indict the guy," Mueller has said, "why should I bother reaching a legal judgment? Plus, it wouldn't be fair to poor Donald J. Trump. The fellow would never be able to find a way to defend himself!"
So the latest god has said. The bulk of that reasoning does make a fair bit of sense, and Dowd doesn't explain what's "nonsensical."
At any rate, the passage Dowd quotes is perhaps too confusing for mainstream press corps work. Mueller the God—the man who was going to lock them all up—has clattered back down to earth.
In fairness to Dowd, Mueller's two-part statement has struck many people as perhaps too precious by half. Beyond that, his positioning is a bit maddening, especially when he announces, channeling Garbo, that he doesn't want to say anything more.
In yesterday's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne addressed himself directly to Mueller. Speaking as one might speak to a child, Dionne told Mueller that he needs to testify to Congress so people can get a better idea what he has actually said.
What has Mueller actually said? In the passage Dowd quotes, he has said two things. Warning! Double negative ahead:
Mueller has said he isn't sure that Trump didn't commit a crime. Also, Mueller has said that he hasn't determined that Trump did commit a crime!
Trump may have committed a crime, but it's also possible that he didn't! There's nothing "nonsensical" about that, but in the modern world of the instant take, it's deeply unsatisfying.
In and of itself, it's also perhaps a bit puzzling. Below, you see the fuller passage from Mueller's public statement last Wednesday. We'll highlight the part of the statement which seemed puzzling to us at the time:
MUELLER (5/29/19): Let me say a word about the report. The report has two parts, addressing the two main issues we were asked to investigate."If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so?"
The first volume of the report details numerous efforts emanating from Russia to influence the election. This volume includes a discussion of the Trump campaign's response to this activity as well as our conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.
And in the second volume, the report describes the results and analysis of our obstruction of justice investigation involving the president. The order appointing me special counsel authorized us to investigate actions that could obstruct the investigation. We conducted that investigation and we kept the office of the acting attorney general apprised of the progress of our work.
And as set forth in the report, after that investigation, if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.
All by itself, on its own, that statement by Mueller struck us as strange. Here's why:
How could anyone ever be sure that Trump hasn't committed the crime of obstruction of justice? (For that matter, how could anyone ever be sure that Trump didn't commit a crime of conspiracy with the Russians?)
Let's be more specific:
How could Mueller ever be sure that Trump didn't commit some such crime—a crime which Mueller simply failed to uncover? In this case, how could anyone ever have confidence that Trump clearly did not commit a crime? How can Mueller, or anyone else, "prove a negative" of that type?
As a general matter, an investigator can't prove that the person being investigated didn't commit a crime of this type. That's part of what observers have meant when they've said that prosecutors don't typically engage in "exoneration."
For that reason, Mueller's statement doesn't exactly make sense. Trump's supporters have complained about that statement, and they aren't exactly wrong. Meanwhile, mainstream pundits have started complaining about the way they've been failed by their latest "most upright person," by their successor to Comey the God.
Especially among liberal pundits, enormous expectations were built around Mueller the God. He was going to lock them all up! We heard it again and again.
In the end, Mueller didn't indict Donald Trump Junior. He didn't indict Jared Kushner.
He didn't frog-march anyone off for attending that Trump Tower meeting. He didn't splay Trump's financial entanglements all across the countryside.
We were told, month after month, that he was going to do all those things. In the end, he did none of those things, and created confusion to boot.
The moral here is plain. Whenever our press corps creates a god, that god goes on to fail them. (Colin Powell convinced them to vouch for that war. In the end, they all said they'd been wrong.)
As it turns out, Mueller's murky writing and precious reasoning remind us that he's just human. Question:
Do the members of our cable pundit corps rise to that imperfect level? They keep inventing establishment gods, and they just keep getting failed.