We often note here the ironies of Donald Trump’s outsized politics of grievance and retaliation. Trump isn’t the first politician to be perpetually obsessed with punishing perceived adversaries and turncoats, but it is hard to find an example of a politician who is so aggrieved at, and plots retaliation against, imagined nemeses to whom he actually should owe a considerable measure of gratitude.
Take for example one of the most damning accounts in the Mueller Report that documents the instances former White House counsel Don McGahn bucked Trump’s efforts at influencing the investigation. For one, McGahn refused to follow Trump’s orders to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Bob Mueller, and prepared to resign rather than partake in what he saw as a brewing Saturday Night Massacre. Just imagine the fallout, backlash, and crisis that would have followed the Special Counsel’s dismissal. It would have made James Comey’s firing look like a garden party. In warding off this disaster, McGahn arguably saved Trump’s presidency. And yet, is Trump grateful? No.
Since the report’s publication, no staffer interviewed by Mueller’s team has come under as much criticism as McGahn who, incidentally, was directed and authorized to cooperate with the Special Counsel. In a tweet storm railing against the Mueller report, Trump warned to “watch out for people” like McGahn who “take so-called ‘notes,’” suggesting that McGahn’s statements to Mueller were “fabricated” and “only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad).”
Trump also arguably owes an even bigger “thank you” to Comey, who has instead often found himself on the receiving end of the president’s invective. There’s a reason many Democrats have pilloried the former FBI Director – they believe, legitimately, that his decision to publicly reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, less than two weeks prior to the 2016 election, won Trump the presidency. And yet, is Trump grateful? Not a chance. Besides firing him, he has accused Comey of lying to Congress, calling him “a total sleaze” and a “crooked cop.”
A thank you is also in order for Bob Mueller who, by Trump’s own words, “exonerated” him. Though Mueller obviously did not exonerate on obstruction, he did do Trump a huge favor by refusing to state that there was an obstruction of justice offense even though, as Anne and I discussed on CAFE Insider, it seems clear he believed there was. As the Times’s Maureen Dowd wrote in her column this weekend, “President Trump obstructed on nearly every page of Volume II of the Mueller report, even though Robert Mueller was too lost in legalese to throw the book at him.”
Mueller did Trump two additional favors: (1) he ended his investigation long before, not just the 2020 election but, the primary season, and (2) by not explicitly passing the buck to Congress, he gave Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General the opportunity to step in to declare victory and exoneration.
Trump, of course, is not grateful to Mueller. The wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran instead stands accused of leading an attempted coup on the presidency. “It is now finally time to turn the tables and bring justice to some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even Spying or Treason,” the president tweeted.
Sure, in an ordinary universe, Mueller’s recitation of Trump’s many transgressions would be devastating, but this is no ordinary universe; this is a world where repeated violations of norms and stark departures from common decency are shrugged off with a common refrain that’s become a ubiquitous part of our digital communication: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Even the press, perhaps the most maligned group among the usual targets of Trump’s wrath, has given the president a political gift. How is that? Journalists’ dogged reporting on Mueller’s investigation has led to the absence of blockbuster revelations in the report, thus taking steam out of any drive toward impeachment. It would have been a DEFCON 1 event had any number of the salacious accounts the Special Counsel documents first become known with the report’s release. But because the meat of many of these stories was already known, Trump’s allies could easily move from their usual cry of “fake news” to a new mantra – “old news,” time to move on.
Do you think it’s time to move on?
Speaking of gratitude, no better time to remind ourselves of the wise words offered by Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, a collection of 124 letters the great Roman philosopher sent to his friend Lucilius. In Letter 81, “On Benefits,” Seneca wrote:
We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbor, has not benefited himself — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practiced with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbor, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me. . .
The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates the gifts which he has accepted, because he must make a return for them, and he tries to belittle their value, but he really enlarges and exaggerates the injuries which he has received. And what is more wretched than a man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?
All three volumes of Seneca’s 124 letters covering a wide range of topics, including self-control (Letter 116), the fickleness of fortune (Letter 98), and noble aspirations (Letter 39) are available for free here. You can also listen to audio recordings of the first ten letters here.
Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] and let us know, what are you grateful for?
We can always choose to be more grateful and there is lots to be thankful for. This week, CAFE is especially grateful to all of you for helping us bring home a Webby award for the best individual episode of a podcast – Preet’s Stay Tuned interview with Bill Browder.
PROBING MUELLER EVENT
A day before the release of the Mueller report, Preet participated in an event organized by the Reiss Center on Law & Security and the Latham & Watkins Forum at NYU Law School, where he is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence.
The event, moderated by Ryan Goodman, the founding co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and a fellow NYU professor, also featured Politico’s National Security Correspondent Natasha Bertrand.
The panel placed Mueller’s report in its larger context, looked at SDNY’s reported Trump-related investigations, and offered perspectives on the road ahead.
“MUELLER V. BARR, A POST-MORTEM”
Takeaways from Episode 22 of CAFE Insider:
What are the legal consequences of Barr’s call on obstruction?
The determination by Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein that “evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” may be legally insignificant except to the extent that it could be used as a defense argument in any future criminal case against Trump that might be brought after he leaves office.
What if President Trump had been interviewed?
Some have criticized Mueller’s decision not to compel an in-person interview with Trump, which could have been critical for establishing corrupt intent, a necessary element for any obstruction of justice offense. An in-person interview would add credibility to the report and its findings. Had Mueller secured an interview with Trump, and had Trump lied, the policy against indicting a sitting president would still apply, but we’d have further evidence on the question of Trump’s intent when it came to his firing of Comey or any number of efforts at undermining the investigation. If Trump told Mueller the truth, his statements would further corroborate existing evidence of wrongdoing.
If you haven’t already, listen to “Mueller v. Barr, a post-mortem”
We’ve recently changed how to listen to CAFE Insider in the podcast player of your choice. These updated instructions will walk you through how to listen on your device just like an episode of Stay Tuned.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Ken Feinberg is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. Described by the Observeras “one of the singular figures in American legal history,” Feinberg is perhaps America’s most renowned mediator. He is the architect of compensation programs for the victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks, the BP oil spill, the Virginia Tech shooting, and many other disasters that present unique challenges for the legal system.
Feinberg currently oversees the compensation funds for victims who were sexually abused by the clergy in the archdiocese of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. In this sneak peek at the interview, Feinberg tells Preet what he learned from the countless victims he has encountered in his work:
You learn from the perspective of the victim how different human nature is. Every victim is different. Some come to see me, angry, frustrated, disappointed, tearful. The reaction of victims, in any tragedy, is as multifarious and as diverse as human nature itself. The thing I’ve learned, and you probably learned it better than me many years ago in your work, is to become a better listener, become more empathetic. You don’t know it all. You don’t know a thimble frankly in some of these cases. And a recognition, I think, of one’s humility in confronting people who have confronted the horror of tragedy, I think makes you, I’d like to think makes you a better person.
Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, April 25th.
Nina Totenberg is the legendary Legal Affairs Correspondent for NPR. Follow her @NinaTotenberg for informed reporting on the Supreme Court and its docket. (And, if you haven’t already, listen to her interview on Stay Tuned.)
“Doing Justice” is a NYT best seller and among the nine books recommended by the Times book editor. If you haven’t already, ORDER your copy, also available as an audio book. Thank you to everyone for showing your support and joining Preet and the CAFE Team in our pursuit and exploration of justice.
That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— Tamara Sepper and the Cafe Team (Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, and Vinay Basti)