Although the redacted version of the Mueller Report does not find treachery within the White House, it paints such a withering portrait of the president’s boorishness, ineptitude and dishonesty that the absence of collusion seems almost beside the point. However embarrassing previous exposés like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear may have been, they pale next to the special counsel’s dispassionate skewering Trump and his advisors. The president that emerges from the pages of the special report combines the malevolent vulgarity of a mafia boss with the comic ignorance of a Dickensian buffoon.
After learning of Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, Trump reportedly complains that “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f——-.” Characteristically, he then tries to blame someone else. The target on this occasion is then Attorney General Jeff Sessions who had recused himself from the investigation. Displaying what was either complete ignorance of the law, or – worse – thoroughgoing contempt for it, Trump asks Sessions: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?”
In another revealing scene, Trump complains when the White House lawyer, Don McGahn, takes notes during their meetings. “What about these notes?,” Trump asks. “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” McGahn replies that he is doing so because he is a “real lawyer” and that note-taking creates a record. To which Trump responds: “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.” Cohn, Trump’s former mentor and personal lawyer is largely forgotten today but he was once well-known for representing mafia figures and for sealing backroom political deals. Cohn also figured prominently as an attack dog for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s during his anti communist witch hunt in the 1950s. With this as his ideal, is it any surprise that Trump was both angry and disappointed to discover that the presidency did not automatically shield him from legal jeopardy?
With deliberate restraint, Mueller builds a case that Trump is a complete opportunist, repeatedly abusing his powers and ignoring any norm, or precedent, that stands in his way; willing to achieve personal ends by any means necessary. When, for instance the New York Times reports that Trump had asked McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump turns to McGahn and says: “I never said to fire Mueller. I never said ‘fire’. This story doesn’t look good. You need to correct this. You’re the White House counsel.” (McGahn declines to do so, and notes that the story is accurate.) Mueller’s relish for understatement is most evident in what may be the report’s most damning finding: “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”
In Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth, a prematurely aged, mentally fatigued and somewhat self-pitying Simón Bolìvar reviews the disappointments of his political life. At one point he warns an aide “Don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.” While it has no literary aspirations, Mueller’s portrait of Trump shows an equally worn-out and frustrated leader, increasingly disliked and distrusted, and grappling with a legal and political labyrinth of his own making. Whether the president’s current plague of miseries will produce further political turmoil for the rest of us remains to be seen.