When it finally came to light this week, special counsel Robert Mueller’s report seemed to animate everyone – and satisfy no one.
The report’s 448 pages (with 946 redactions, courtesy of Attorney General William Barr) laid out evidence of a systematic campaign by the Russian government to undermine American democracy – and of President Donald Trump’s efforts to throw sand in the gears of the law enforcement machine that was investigating him.
At the same time, Trump’s defenders could point to Mueller’s conclusions that the President’s 2016 campaign did not illegally coordinate with the Russians and that he would not charge the President with obstructing justice.
That measured verdict gave ammunition to all sides. The report, wrote Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, “does not exonerate him from obstruction of justice – the charge at the heart of Presidents Nixon’s and Clinton’s impeachment processes. The Mueller team found multiple instances where Trump tried to stifle a legitimate investigation into his own conduct. Very often the only thing that saved him were advisers who wouldn’t do what he wanted done. … Indeed, if this is a ‘good’ report for the President, it is hard to imagine what a bad one would look like.”
But for a Republican commentator, the report’s findings were more than enough reason to turn the page: “It’s a painful pill for Trump critics to swallow, but ill-advised is not illegal, unsavory is not unlawful, and chaos is not a conspiracy,” observed Alice Stewart. The report can be summed up in “four simple words: Russiagate was no Watergate.”
What if Trump said…
To truly turn the page, though, might require the kind of presidential speech Trump could never give, wrote CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen. He imagined these healing words:
“My fellow Americans. …The special counsel’s report has cleared me and my team from conspiracy but I have to acknowledge that the report also paints a devastating portrait of the Russian efforts to manipulate our electoral process. Therefore, I now accept that this was not the possible work of ‘some guy in his home in New Jersey’ as I said during the transition. …In fact, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his henchmen are the only ones to blame. This is a disgrace and I am instructing my national security team to prevent any kind of repeat of what happened in 2016 …”
Barr at the barricades
Barr, who released the Mueller report, set the table for it with the four-page letter he wrote last month, disclosing some of Mueller’s findings and adding his own determination that Trump wouldn’t be charged with obstruction. Then, minutes before the report’s release on Thursday, Barr held a news conference that seemed designed to further shape how the public would perceive the report. Many were outraged.
“William Barr has cemented his status as a crafty partisan whose primary tricks are to cloak his political moves to shape public opinion and to protect President Trump under a thin sheen of law and process,” wrote CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor Elie Honig.
Journalist Jill Filipovic observed that the attorney general appeared to be trying to make excuses for Trump’s behavior, as described in the Mueller report, because of what he called Trump’s “sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” A woman under those circumstances would be accused of surrendering to her emotions and wouldn’t get any sympathy. “Men in an emotional tailspin have ‘sincere beliefs,’” she noted. “Trump is perhaps the most emotionally unbalanced national politician in living memory, tweeting semi-literate all-caps outbursts and frothing up his followers with incoherent tirades.”
The defects in the Barr-driven process aren’t only his fault, wrote CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin. They were a glaring illustration of why it was a mistake for Congress to abolish powerful independent counsels after the Ken Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Notre Dame will rebuild
Easter Sunday began in Paris with parts of the ancient Notre Dame Cathedral in ruins and with the French nation vowing to rebuild. The Monday fire that destroyed the roof and collapsed the spire of the church, which has sat on an island in the Seine for eight centuries, riveted and saddened people around the world.
“What a week for this fire to happen: a time when thousands of worshippers in France were readying themselves through penitence and prayer for the Passion, for Easter itself – the celebration that comes on Resurrection Sunday,” wrote Jay Parini.
“It felt like the entire world was in pain,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “In a time of inflamed political, religious and sectarian divisions, somehow, a fire in a Catholic church, a cathedral in France, managed to melt away the animosity – if only for a moment – and bring people together in shared sorrow. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or atheist; in France, India, Argentina, everywhere.”
In the National Review, Rich Lowry wrote, “Notre Dame stands for so many qualities that we now lack – patience and staying power, the cultivation of beauty, a deep religious faith, the cultural confidence and ambition to build a timeless monument of our civilization – that the collapse of its spire was almost too much to bear.”
The fire brought painful memories, and also a sense of determination, to Katie Hawkins-Gaar. As newlyweds, she and her husband Jamie took pictures in front of the cathedral in 2008 and vowed to return to Paris every five years. But when Katie returned in 2018, she was alone – and carrying her husband’s ashes. He had collapsed and died while running a half-marathon at the age of 32. “Everything is ephemeral, including the people and places we love,” she wrote. “Notre Dame will rebuild. And so will I.”
Lessons of rebuilding
That same spirit emerged in the words of people connected with two American churches that are rebuilding after fires: Christine Behnke, parish education director of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church UAC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wrote: “After watching a news report about Notre Dame Monday, I went and stood in Trinity’s dark, damp, scarred sanctuary. … All the ash has been removed, scaffolding erected and a temporary roof covers the nave. … We really are rising from the ashes!”