If your hot take from Mueller was obstruction or impeachment, you weren't listening

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE appeared alone and refused to take questions at a press conference Wednesday — his first public appearance since the launch of his investigation. His report and the indictments, Mueller stressed, speak for themselves. 

Mueller brought to mind Marshal Will Kane, the terse, laconic character played by Gary Cooper in the classic 1952 western movie “High Noon.” Kane is the only man in the town of Hadleyville willing to fight a band of murderous gunmen. He writes his last will and testament and walks alone into the street to face the outlaws.

That was the quintessence of Mueller’s tight-lipped press appearance. Like Marshall Kane after the outlaws had been killed, Mueller threw down his tin badge and moved on.


Much of the buzz after the conference concerned Mueller’s statement about his obstruction findings: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Actually, I think Mueller went out of his way to direct the public to a different section of his report, which described, as he said yesterday, Russia’s “concerted attack on our political system.” He even ended the press conference by saying, “And I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Mueller was telling Americans: Don’t get so consumed with obstruction and impeachment that you lose sight of the 2016 electoral Pearl Harbor that Russia tried to inflict on the United States and for all we know, succeeded in accomplishing — and thus changed American history. The Russian interference, as Mueller stressed, “was designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.”

For self-serving political reasons, both President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE and Democrats heard in the Mueller press conference what they wanted to hear — and it had nothing to do with Mueller’s key point.

Trump, who is galactically insecure about his electoral legitimacy, has repeatedly denied or doubted that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. According to press reports, White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyTrump's relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook Jan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision MORE told aides not even to mention Russian interference in front of the president. Trump’s comment on the Mueller press conference was “case closed.”


Think about it: Russia systematically attacked the infrastructure of our democracy, yet the attitude of the president is that it “never happened.” 

The Democrats have become impeachment-obsessed, whether they are for or against it. When did you last hear the impeachment-cautious House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTwo-thirds of Americans support banning lawmakers from trading stocks: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Watch: Lawmakers, activists, family members call for voting rights legislation on MLK day MORE (D-Calif.) or impeachment-firebrands talk about Russian interference? 

Impeachment should be a nonstarter for Democrats because Trump will be acquitted in the Senate. Yet, many Democratic presidential candidates, citing Mueller’s tone and emphasis, acted as though the special counsel had just sent them an engraved, embossed invitation to commence impeachment proceedings. In reality all he had done was to repeat what was in his report and note “the work speaks for itself.” Apparently, the momentous decision to impeach will turn on Mueller’s vocal inflections.

Democrats would rather tilt at impeachment windmills than expend time and political capital alerting the public to the ongoing threat of a Russian electoral attack and on hardening our defenses.

It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s emphasis on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election will get the “attention” of “every” American but the results to date have not been encouraging. While polls suggest that a majority of Americans believe that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in the election, only about one-third of Republicans hold that view. Given Trump’s slavish devotion to his base, Mueller should have said, “That allegation deserves the attention of every Republican,” although it’s unlikely to ever get it.  

Here’s another parallel to “High Noon.” Mueller didn’t seem to want any credit or to have taken any satisfaction from his job, which is understandable since he was attacked by the White House almost daily. As Marshall Will Kane put it, “I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you are crazy.”

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.