The release of the redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation last week is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of what John Oliver calls “Stupid Watergate”. It’s basically Watergate, “but if Nixon had been kicked in the head by a billy goat, and if that billy goat was the White House chief of staff”, he said on Last Week Tonight.
Oliver covered several key findings in the 448-page report, starting with statements refuting Donald Trump’s claim that it offered a “total and complete exoneration”.
In fact, the report said: “If we had confidence … that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” That’s a “pretty conspicuous non-exoneration”, Oliver said. “If you interview a job applicant and they told you: ‘Just so you know, I wasn’t found guilty of fucking my neighbors’ mailboxes, but I also specifically wasn’t found innocent,’ you would not necessarily rule them out, but you would definitely think twice about hiring them.”
Oliver focused his monologue on “two key factors that may have saved the president here: incompetence when it comes to conspiracy with Russia, and disobedience when it comes to obstruction of justice”.
On the incompetence front, Oliver turned to Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. According to the report, Cohen botched a potential Russian government connection by mistyping “.gof” instead of “.gov” in an email. He also googled the wrong Dmitry Klokov and believed, until the day Mueller’s team asked about him, that the Kremlin’s press secretary was also an Olympic weightlifter found on YouTube.
The episode illustrates, Oliver argued, how Trump and his team avoided charges of conspiracy not through lack of intent, but “cartoonish levels of disorganization and incompetence”.
Oliver continued that the reports shows how if it wasn’t competence saving Trump, it was direct refusal from his subordinates to carry out his orders. “Wow, the news that the president ordered subordinates to do things that might constitute obstruction and then they just ignored him is both reassuring and also terrifying,” he said.
The most striking case of staff insubordination, Oliver said, was that of the White House chief counsel, Don McGahn. According to the report, in summer 2017, Trump ordered McGahn to fire Mueller as special counsel; McGahn refused and prepared to resign, telling then chief of staff Reince Priebus that is was because the president asked him to do “crazy shit”.
“Preparing to quit because you’re being asked to do ‘crazy shit’ isn’t what you expect from the White House counsel,” Oliver said. “It’s what you expect from Nicolas Cage’s personal assistant.”
All of this has been significantly downplayed by the attorney general, William Barr, who said in a press conference that the administration cooperated fully with Mueller’s investigation. In fact, Mueller’s description of the administration’s tolerance of Mueller’s team is “pretty much the exact opposite of what Barr said”, Oliver reported.
Barr’s misdirection, though, “can make this feel a little anticlimatic, especially because ever since Barr’s summary came out, the Trump administration has been taking an unearned victory lap”. Oliver brought up a clip of Kellyanne Conway saying the idea that she or any other staffers would lie, cheat, plot or steal was “an insult from the beginning”.
“But was it, though? Was it?” Oliver fumed. “An insult would be to say that Kellyanne Conway died many years ago and is now a skin-suit occupied and operated by 300 rats who’ve evolved the ability to lie … A fact is that the Mueller report explicitly shows Trump and his associates doing many of the things that she just listed.”
Which brings up Oliver’s most important takeaway: “The Mueller report only vindicates the administration on its own false premises.” Trump and his team spun the report to be only a referendum on “collusion” – a term with no specific legal meaning – in which anything short of 400 or so text messages between Vladimir Putin and Trump would render the entire investigation a waste of time.
Mueller’s investigation did not find collusion nor evidence of a Trump conspiracy to interfere in the election, Oliver said, but it was not short on shocking revelations or confirmations. “Russia interfered in our election and made efforts to help Trump win, and while his campaign did not provably cooperate with Russia, they seemed eager to accept their help in a way that no one should be comfortable with,” he said. Trump may not have obstructed justice, but “it might only be because people who worked for him ignored his orders”.
None of this is good news, Oliver concluded, “but it’s definitely good that we know about it”.