Years from now, when historians recount the tale of Robert Mueller, Special Counsel, they will remember him as the villain of the story, and they’ll remember the press conference he held Wednesday morning as the moment he pulled off the mask to prove he was the bad guy, all along. After two years, and $30 million, Mueller staged one of the most closely watched public statements of all time, and publicly stated absolutely nothing substantive.
Instead, Mueller delivered jumbled rhetoric which simultaneously boosted the hopes of both President Donald Trump’s supporters and detractors alike, while dashing them all on the rocks. Mueller practically dared the Democrats to impeach Trump: "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,” while swearing they should expect no help from him: “I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.” His verbal fence-straddling essentially forced Trump’s avatars to infer exoneration: “It would be unfair to potentially — it would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge..” while begging the Democrats to parse his words enough to proclaim he had called for impeachment: “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
It is possible that Mueller was trying to play Solomon, making a statement which gives both sides on which to hang their hopes, perhaps underestimating the level of partisan rancor in Washington has reached the point where anything that doesn’t make the other team miserable is seen as tantamount to treason. But that assumes he’s surprisingly naïve. It strains credulity to suggest a man who has orbited near the central core of power since the mid-1970s could believe partisans who hate each other the way I hate cancer would accept his work as Special Counsel as the end of the story. And it cracks credulity like an egg to suggest a man who has stood as such a legal giant doesn’t know that “we can’t be sure he didn’t commit a crime,” when cast against the system of justice of which he’s been a part for over 40 years, carries the same legal force as “he didn’t commit a crime.”
Instead of putting to rest the single most divisive issue in American politics, Mueller instead hedged every bet. His refusal to directly exonerate the President of malfeasance jabs Trump, who mercilessly hounded Mueller and his “witch hunt,” right in the nose, while his refusal to directly implicate the President of wrongdoing kicks the Democrats, who abandoned him the moment his report didn’t load their guns, square in the shins. He even managed to throw some subtle shade into his praise of Attorney General William Barr: “I do not question the Attorney General’s good faith in that decision (to release the entire report).”
By couching his closing argument in ambiguity, Mueller tried to play the Democrats’ Horatio at the bridge, while still casting himself as the Republicans’ Leonidas at the gates. Handed the hottest political potato in decades, Mueller stuck a stick of dynamite in it, and handed it back. A hero would have held on.