The Mueller Report
Presented with related materials by the Washington Post
Scribner. 736 pp. $15
[Available from multiple other publishers]
Reviewed by Carlos Lozada
The Mueller report is that rare Washington tell-all that surpasses its prepublication hype.
Sure, it is a little longer than necessary. Too many footnotes and distracting redactions. The writing is often flat, and the first half of the book drags, covering plenty of terrain that has been described elsewhere. The story shifts abruptly between riveting insider tales and dense legalisms. Its protagonist doesn’t really come alive until halfway through, once Volume I (on Russian interference) gives way to Volume II (on obstruction of justice). The title — far too prosaic, really — feels like a missed opportunity.
Yet as an authoritative account, the Mueller report is the best book by far on the workings of the Trump presidency. It was delivered to the attorney general but is also written for history. The book reveals the president in all his impulsiveness, insecurity, and growing disregard for rules and norms; White House aides alternating between deference to and defiance of the man; and a campaign team too inept to realize, or too reckless to care, when they might have been bending the law.
And special counsel Robert Mueller has it all under oath, on the record, along with interviews and contemporaneous notes backing it up.
Befitting a best-selling work of political nonfiction — less than 24 hours after the report went online on April 18, paperback versions of it occupied the top two spots in Amazon’s new-release sales ranking — the Mueller report has its mini-series-ready signature moments. There is the obligatory expletive for the ages, uttered just after President Trump learns that Mueller has been appointed as special counsel and moans, “This is the end of my presidency.”
There is the embarrassing contradiction from the president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who told reporters that countless FBI employees loved the firing of director James Comey but then admits to investigators that she’d made it up. There’s the contrast between the president’s public bluster, evident in his Twitter rants, and his private diffidence, embodied in Trump’s lawyerly written responses to Mueller’s queries, full of "I do not recall" and "I have no recollection."
And there is the inevitable Nixonian reference, as when White House counsel Don McGahn refuses the president’s request to instruct the deputy attorney general to dismiss Mueller because McGahn worried about unleashing a new Saturday Night Massacre.
In its portrait of the Trump campaign and White House, the Mueller report also echoes recent, high-profile works. The mix of incompetence, disorganization, and self-interest evident here evokes Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which depicts a Trump inner circle both unprepared and uninterested in actually governing. The moblike mentality among the Trump team that Comey describes in his 2018 memoir, A Higher Loyalty, reappears in the Mueller report, with the president delegating dirty assignments to outside players and demanding loyalty above everything. But where Comey perceived total control by the boss, Mueller shows top aides undermining, slow-walking, or simply ignoring the president’s more outlandish instructions. It is reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s best-selling Fear, in which White House economic officials derail the president’s effort to blow up a free-trade agreement with South Korea by stealing a letter off the president’s desk.
We see former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, among the most obsequious of the president’s loyalists, declining to deliver a message to Jeff Sessions urging the attorney general to publicly defend the president and limit the special counsel’s investigation. In a sense, the Mueller report reads like a dozen anonymous New York Times op-eds from that internal White House resistance, except they are far more detailed — and they’re signed.
The Mueller report is not beautifully written. These are lawyers, not stylists, and the book’s power rests not in its prose but in its overwhelming authority. Yet even that authority has limits, as does the document’s scope. The report expertly documents Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 election, for instance, but does not really reveal the impact of that interference. The omniscient narrator, described most often as “the Office,” is an essential player in the drama, but the special counsel’s own actions, reactions, and impressions are largely absent. (Leave that for the journalists to ferret out — for a blockbuster Mueller memoir.)
And though Volume II of the Mueller report offers a devastating, point-by-point portrayal of the president’s efforts to interfere in the investigation against him, Mueller stops short of declaring criminality. Not because, as Attorney General William Barr initially implied, he was simply unable to make up his mind. Part of his reasoning, Mueller lays out in the report, was that “a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially pre-empt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.”
Constitutional processes — nice euphemism. Others have been less circumspect. In his 1998 report on the Clinton and Lewinsky saga, independent counsel Kenneth Starr declared grounds for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the opening paragraph. In the Watergate Special Prosecution Force Report of 1975, published a few months after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, investigators detailed their deliberations on whether to indict Nixon while he was in office. Though they found no constitutional basis for a president to be “immune from the ordinary process of criminal law,” prosecutors wrote, they also considered that a lengthy legal proceeding would undermine the president’s ability to govern and that “the impeachment process should take precedence over a criminal indictment.”
It is tempting to view the Mueller report as the definitive insider account of the Trump presidency, as most tell-alls purport to be. But it is not. Mueller’s work is done, yes. But how we — and the president — respond to it now will mark the first of several volumes to come.