Please, Mr. Prosecutor Mueller

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(June 30th note : It was odd timing to have this piece appear the night before Mueller finally appeared in person, in a nine-minute televised announcement on May 29, in which he emphasized key points from his report. Without rebuking Barr, he contradicted and implicitly challenged him. The rationale for not making a judgment on obstruction, Mueller emphasized, was not that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Trump, but adherence to the Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime. He also stated that if there had been clear evidence that the President had not committed a crime, he would have said so. What Mueller didn’t make explicit (I wish he had) was that, contrary to Barr’s spin, he didn’t clear Trump. He apparently relied on that conclusion being logically implied.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem that continues despite Mueller’s appearance: his unwillingness to come right out and speak truth to power, straightforwardly and clearly, not in a language coded with lawyerly care and circumscribed by respect for the “chain of command.” I suspect many listeners were left baffled by the seemingly convoluted notion that indictment is prohibited but exoneration is not. “Just what did he say?” a very intelligent friend of mine asked. And many on Fox News went right on insisting that Trump was exonerated by Mueller.

Mueller also sent a message to Congress. I will de-code:

I can’t indict. But the Constitution does provide an alternative. It’s called impeachment. The ball is in your court, Congress. [And by the way, I don’t intend to testify — and there’s no need to. “It’s all in the report; read it.”]

But “it’s all in the report,” while essential advice to Congress, is both absurd and presumptuous as a recommendation to the American people. Most don’t have the time to read the 400-plus pages, and if they do will probably throw their hands up in exasperation over the dense detail and lawyerly circumlocutions. It all needs to be translated and clarified through question and answer in Congress.

Mueller may be right that it’s in the hands of Congress now. But he still has a responsibility to communicate more clearly to the American people. As uncomfortable as it may make him — and as I argue in the piece below — he MUST testify.)

Dear Mr. Prosecutor Mueller:

Can I speak frankly?

What is with you FBI guys?

Either you talk too much or you don’t talk at all.

First James Comey blabbed so recklessly about Hillary Clinton’s “careless” treatment of classified emails that he left millions of Americans with the impression that she was guilty of a crime, despite the fact that he had cleared her of all charges. Then he decided not to reveal that Trump was under investigation while reminding voters, eleven days before the election, to be sure and not forget about Clinton’s “email scandal” when they cast their votes. And now you — who we’ve been writing eager, pleading love songs to for two years — have apparently decided that you want to avoid the “political spectacle” of public testimony by refusing to have your appearance before Congress televised. Especially after Comey, that hurts. It really does.

It’s embarrassing now to recall much we’d pinned our hopes on you. It’s painful to look at the “Please Mr. Mueller” video now, and remember how we all laughed and cheered and, even though we knew it was a parody, had our hearts temporarily lifted, as we shared and plastered it all over Facebook and Twitter.

It’s kind of sad now to watch that video; it seems as naïve as imagining Elliot Ness actually was reincarnated as Kevin Costner. But — with all due respect, Mr. Prosecutor Mueller — maybe you are the naïve one, thinking that you can somehow remain “apolitical,” somehow manage what the press and politicos will do with your words, if your testimony isn’t televised. James Comey, if we believe his book, also thought he was acting in a scrupulously apolitical manner — and we know what his arrogant attempt to second-guess the consequences of his actions led to. Sure, I can understand your desire to avoid participating in what must seem, to a man of your “rectitude” (as Representative Nadler described you to Rachel Maddow) ) like a wild-west show. But the reality is that testifying behind closed doors will not avoid the circus; it will simply allow the clowns to continue to occupy center-stage.

And — again with all due respect — what century are you living in? Are you still using a quill pen? Did you not see (that was rhetorical, I know you did, because you actually came forward to complain about it — can we have some more of that please?) how shamelessly William Barr was able to distort and displace the reality of your careful, masterful report in one televised appearance?

Yes, I did read your report, and I did find it masterful. But as you surely must know, it’s also dense, detail-packed, ultimately (and frustratingly) withholding, and although those of us who have sifted through it have largely come to the same conclusion that had Trump not been President he would surely have been indicted on at least a few counts of obstruction of justice, the fact that the Report tops the best-seller lists does not mean tons of people have actually read it. William Barr, of course, was counting on that when he left that staggeringly false impression in the minds of Americans. Now, he and Trump are doing their best, blocking testimony to Congress, to see that “No Collusion, No Obstruction” remains indelibly stamped in the collective mind.

Trump and Barr seem to understand the political power of the televised appearance, and I’m trying to wrap my mind around why you do not. I know you are aware of the McCarthy hearings, which brought the dramatic turnaround of McCarthyism and Joseph Welch’s memorable “At long last, have you no decency?” into the living rooms of enthralled Americans. I know you remember when a sweating Richard Nixon lost the Presidential debates to a glamorous, cool Kennedy (those audiences who heard the debate on radio overwhelmingly rated Nixon the winner) and when John Dean called out the “cancer on the Presidency” in the Watergate Hearings. And then, of course, there’s the latest in the line of audience-grabbers: “No Collusion, No Obstruction.”

Like it or not, the mass media, while they may not be the message, carry the message louder and clearer than written argument — especially a complex one of over 400 pages, which landed in most people’s lives with the silent thump of a fallen tree in the forest that no-one is around to hear. Trump gets the impotence of argument and detail better than anyone and exploits it daily, as he tries to rewrite reality with repetitive mantras that brand people and events as he pleases. Heard often enough, they achieve the status of fact. A dry transcript cannot compete; we need you to come forward and speak.

For a long, long time now, Trump’s presence has verbally and visually dominated our lives, while you have chosen to remain invisible. We granted, even appreciated, that reticence during the years that you were investigating and writing your report. Admittedly, we were silly to endow you with capacity to save us. (What can I say, we are all feeling a bit desperate these days.) But if it was naïve to imagine that your report would zap public consciousness (the way, say, the lurid Starr Report did), we weren’t prepared to have it suppressed by an obstructionist Attorney General. (We should have been; Barr practically warned us.) Reading what you actually wrote after hearing Barr’s summary was gasp-inducing, the gap between text and spin was so broad. And watching the facts trickle out, bit by bit, fragmented and diluted by the passage of time and the impact of the week’s previous headlines was torture. I thought of all those people who, unlike me, do not have jobs that afford them the privilege of time to read lengthy reports. I imagined those people trying to piece the fragments together while louder, more insistent voices colluded in sustaining a false but more easily consumable narrative.

Now, in the face of constant stonewalling and gaslighting by Trump and Company, the American people need you to come out of the shadows. We need to have the fog lifted.

Dear Mr. Prosecutor Mueller: People throw the phrase “speaking truth to power” around promiscuously nowadays.

You, however, can actually do it.

Please, please do.

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Forthcoming in 2021: TV (A volume in Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series)

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