By Andonis Vassiliades
Since the 2016 US presidential election and Donald Trump’s accession to power no other person on the planet has had so much media coverage on a daily basis for the wrong reasons.
We have covered various aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency and his own persona in previous comments, but the publication of the redacted report of special counsel Robert Mueller on April 18 brings into focus much of what has been claimed and covered before. This time, however, it is official. The report is full of details and references to his demeanour and actions that go beyond the normal bounds of what to expect of a president. Of course his supporters have rallied around him including the attorney general in excusing his behaviour due to excessive stress and fear of losing his presidency. That very excuse tells far more about the Trump presidency than the two volumes presented by the special counsel.
As I point out later, under the guise of not carrying out a “traditional prosecution judgement”, Mueller may have cleverly fudged the findings by not openly declaring Trump guilty of obstructing justice but his conclusion leaves open the door to more investigations and possibly a criminal charge. If nothing else, the report is a catalogue of examples of widespread and persistent moral corruption.
The massive report of 448 pages is a litany of political manoeuvres and machinations to protect personal interests through threats, lies, absurd and offensive language, dismissals, attempts at cover ups, disruption of government, the creation and exploitation of political party divisions and suspect deals. Generally, with the exception of a few who resisted the pressure to step out of their constitutional powers, the report brings to the fore the actions of a president, members of his administration and others connected to them which disturbingly fall short of expectation. The painted caricature of the president that emerges out of the document is one of an insecure, disgruntled individual who acts as a social and political disruptor and whose understanding of constitutional and national matters is poor to say the least.
Mueller’s investigation and the massive data gathered are mind-blowing. The report is, by any standards, a feat of major proportions. It manages the long, intensive and extensive investigation with unusual flair. For political historians, the document will be remembered as a very rich exhibit and an analysis of a sick political system. It will sit in history as a prime example of a costly and politically explosive investigation and a constant reminder that the US presidency and generally the machinery of government are seriously and corrosively contaminated by greed. It will present a political system which survives on the manufacture and spread of fake news, abuse of economic and political power and the subjugation of discerning voices through fear, threat and intimidation.
Unfortunately, due to its length, detail and style of writing few interested parties will actually ever read the whole document. Most people will rely on limited and distorted interpretations freely dispersed to placate the public with promises and false statements that the president and the system he leads have been exonerated and, therefore, the country is safe in their hands. But the Mueller report does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it lays bare – albeit in snap-shots – the failings of this president and his administration.
Mueller’s conclusion is a case in point and for that matter I will quote it in its entirety. But before I do so, it is important to remind readers that the published document is severely redacted and indeed, many pages are completely blacked out. Therefore, the very fact that the published document is subject to such an extensive removal of information begs the question what lies behind the redacted passages and whether the report in its present form tells the whole story. This leads me to making an uneasy but fair comparison with President Richard Nixon’s devious and stubborn efforts to withhold evidence. His Waterloo – ‘Watergate’ – not only brought him down but it also demonstrated the perversity of power relationships in trying their best to withhold incriminating information. Where evidence in the form of tapes and documents was requested and provided it was subsequently found to have been falsified or destroyed or substantially redacted to cover up the story. Similarly, I expect that we have not heard the last of Mueller and the evidence in question. Sooner or later investigative journalists, Congress, politicians or others such as academics researching the report and the period will uncover new leads and information. When all that is fused with the present document the facts of the case and the role played by President Donald Trump and his administration and how those roles impacted on the US and the broader world political stage before, during and after the 2016 presidential campaign may become clearer.
“Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecution judgement, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president’s conduct. The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgement. At the same time, 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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach judgement. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” (R. Mueller, vol. II, p.182, my italics).
The philosopher Karl Popper’s principle of ‘falsifiability’ in scientific enquiry bears relevance here. In Popper’s terms falsifiability is a required and necessary part in defining good science. For example, if I say that trolls exist and are all around us but they cannot be seen because they are invisible is a statement which is not falsifiable. The nature of a claim should be such that it is susceptible to challenge, falsification and where possible replacement by alternative propositions. Good investigations are those which do not go out to prove their propositions but to shred them in pieces instead. If one cannot disprove a claim then that must be stated. The claim is then allowed to stand until something else comes along and successfully puts it to rest or adds to its credence.
And here you have it – the Mueller way. I am not sure if Mueller read or studied Popper’s method of scientific enquiry but certainly his method and conclusion bear a strong Popperian sentiment. In straight English, Mueller states that he did not manage to destroy the claim that the president did not commit a crime. Put in context, and doing away with his cryptic Popperian language, he is saying this: sorry folks but we tried unsuccessfully to reject the claim that the president acted criminally. We are not saying he has committed a crime but we are also inferring that if we cannot disprove that he acted criminally, it follows that until proven otherwise the president remains under suspicion and the scrutiny of further investigation.
Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor