E.J. Dionne Jr.: Dear Robert Mueller: Your report can't speak for itself
Mr. Mueller, your job is not done yet. In fact, it’s a long way from done. It’s honorable of you to act as if you are part of a process that’s on the level. But there is nothing by-the-book in how President Trump and Attorney General William Barr have responded to your findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election or your evidence about Trump’s obstruction of justice.
How maddening is your approach to all this? I was struck by a line in a Politico story about your public statement last week: “Mueller all but said Congress’ only recourse to hold Trump accountable is impeachment.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Mueller. “All but said” is not good enough. Do you say it or do you not?
You are dealing here with a president happy to tear the law and the truth — and, for that matter, you — to pieces. Do you feel no responsibility to set the record straight when Trump distorts it day after day? You claim that, under the rules, it would have been wrong for you to say that Trump broke the law. But that’s not what your boss, the attorney general, says.
“I personally felt he could’ve reached a decision,” Barr told Jan Crawford on CBS This Morning. The Justice Department’s legal opinion, Barr continued, “says you cannot indict a president while he is in office, but he could’ve reached a decision as to whether it was criminal activity. But he had his reasons for not doing it.”
The public has a right to know what’s going on here. And when Barr put out his four-page letter back in March utterly distorting your conclusions, why didn’t you feel obligated to say something right away? If you had, as The Washington Post editorialized, you “could have avoided much confusion and short-circuited the administration’s attempt to manipulate public opinion.”
But you can make up for that by going before Congress and doing what comes naturally to you: You can tell the truth.
You say you want your written work to “speak for itself.” But a document cannot respond to Barr’s distortions and Trump’s lies. Only you can speak for it, and, yes, explain it.
Listen to Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former federal prosecutor who is, like you, a military veteran. Sherrill is not red hot for impeachment. On the contrary, she wants to learn more before she decides because “you’re always on your strongest footing when you have all the information you can have.”
But she is surprised that you think a written account is enough. “As a federal prosecutor, I never had an investigator deliver a report and say, ‘I’m not going to further discuss this,’ ” she told me. “He has to come before Congress and further discuss his report.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., came out for an impeachment inquiry last week, but he and Sherrill agree when it comes to the need for you to be much clearer. “I wish he would answer questions, that he wouldn’t hint at what we should do but spell it out,” McGovern said in an interview. “He speaks in ways that are open to interpretation. Sometimes, he’s like a Ouija board.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was highly respectful of you last week before San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club and called you a “very patriotic American.” But she noted that, while you have offered “an array of facts,” Congress and the country really do have a right to know more. “While he may have thought these were the priority points to make to the public,” she said, rather diplomatically, “there may be questions relating to these facts that members of Congress would have.”
Here’s the irony, sir: You obviously want to keep yourself out of politics, which in prosecutorial matters is right and honorable. But when you decided to be less definitive in your judgments than was, say, Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor, you made it inevitable that politics would overwhelm the substance of your probe. You opened the way for Trump and Barr to try to bury the very issues you want the public and Congress to consider.
Pelosi is right: You are a very patriotic American. This means you have to raise your voice and undo the lies. I get that controversy of this sort makes you uncomfortable. But our country was founded by people who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to liberty. This is a moment when, quite literally, truth and justice demand that you get out of your comfort zone.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.