After two years of carefully scripted public silence, Robert Mueller spoke on May 30. In eight minutes of words, as carefully scripted as his previous silence, Mueller delivered a message radically different in tone and substance than the Trumpian tweets about a “Russia hoax” and the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion.” Two months after Mueller delivered a 448-page report to Attorney General William Barr, he closed up shop and left his job as Special Counsel. Here is a Q&A based on my interview on China Radio International.
Q: What’s your takeaway from Robert Mueller’s eight-minute statement?
A: Robert Mueller made clear that he believed Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, misstated the findings of the report when Barr claimed that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing. Mueller was precise and diplomatic in his wording. But the words were very damaging to Barr’s credibility among open-minded Americans, although in a deeply divided country, I’m not sure how many people are open to changing their minds about anything relating to Trump. The two points Mueller made abundantly clear: There was, and is, ongoing Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, and he cannot and will not clear Donald Trump of attempting to obstruct justice.
Q: In Mueller’s speech, he detailed 10 instances where Trump had possibly attempted to impede the investigation, but said the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Is he indicating an impeachment process?
A: Not exactly. He said the Justice Department policy is clear and that he abided by that policy. The question of whether a sitting president may be charged criminally during his or her presidency may be decided by a court at some point. Mueller did strongly suggest that it is up to Congress at this present time to formally accuse a sitting president, because the Trump Justice Department will not.
Q: Three more democrats are calling for impeachment, and one Republican has been calling for Trump’s impeachment, do you think the momentum will grow after Mueller’s speech?
A: The momentum is building slowly. The reason is that Republicans remain scared to death of Trump and his supporters. Some are afraid of being defeated in primaries. Some want to use their power in Washington to pursue their policy goals. And other simply agree with Trump’s ends and his tactics. Democratic congressional leaders want to focus the party’s efforts on defeating Trump at the ballot box in 2020 rather than impeaching him, which they could do, but there is no chance of convicting him in a Republican Senate. The same thing happened with Bill Clinton in 1999.
Q: What do you make of the division within the Democratic Party on this issue?
A: The party is divided between pragmatists, who want the House of Representatives to focus on policy issues and want Democrats to focus on electoral success, and idealists and ideologues who believe that Trump is a liar, a crook, a scoundrel, a mad king, a Russian dupe, an unfit charlatan, or some combination of those things.
Q: Mueller said he did “not believe it is appropriate” for him to testify before Congress, as House Democrats have asked. How do you look at this, and how is the Congress going to react to this that he doesn’t want to testify?
A: Mueller is a rare public figure in America who wants his words to speak for him. He wants to investigation and the report to be his legacy. He does not want to get into a personal political war with Donald Trump. Those battles have ended with damaged reputations for anyone who has gotten into a personal conflict with Trump for the past 35 years. Mueller, at his press availability, made it very, very clear that we should focus on the carefully crafted, very strong language in the report. Trump said the report cleared him. It obviously does not. Mueller wants every American to read every word of the report. He doesn’t want them to be forced to choose between political “sound bites.”
Q: Mueller has announced the formal closure of the special counsel office and his resignation from the justice department. If we look back at this investigation that went on for more than two years and costed over 25 million US dollars of tax payer’s money. Do you think it was worth it?
A: Absolutely. It was a fact-finding mission and a criminal investigation. It succeeded on both levels. The people of the world know much more about the Russian government’s aggressive and persistent efforts to elect Donald Trump and sow chaos in the American political system. Dozens of people have been convicted of criminal charges, including some of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. The Mueller investigation has spawned several ongoing criminal probes. But most of all, Mueller wrote a dispassionate, detailed report of the facts as he knew them, despite, as he strongly suggested, an aggressive attempt to obstruct his investigation.
China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:
Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?
A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.
Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?
A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.
Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?
A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.
Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?
A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.
Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?
A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.
Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?
A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.
It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.
Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?
A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.
Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?
A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.
Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?
A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.
But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.
Here’s my quick take on Donald Trump’s hard-line negotiating style with Canada and Mexico over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement. Trump thinks that he can wring concessions out of America’s two neighbors that would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It’s a very big gamble: The automakers might just build the cars elsewhere.
Here’s the video clip from CGTN’s World Insight with Tian Wei. Just click on the embedded link:
— World Insight (@worldinsightTW) October 13, 2017
As a professor of multimedia journalism, I tell my students about the importance of clear, concise storytelling — in whatever medium they choose. The New York Times has been leading the news industry in its use of multimedia platforms, from data visualization to videos that complement text stories.
This September 5, 2017, video was posted in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to end the so-called “DACA” program that protected children brought illegally into the United States from the threat of immediate deportation. Look at its production qualities. People speaking into the camera, stating their personal stories. The camera is the storyteller. There is a minimum of text on the screens. The storytelling is spare. And powerful.
Take a look.
As a regular analyst of American politics, policy and economics, I am often asked to explain Donald Trump to global audiences. Here is my Fourth of July segment on World Insight with Tian Wei:
— World Insight (@worldinsightTW) July 5, 2017
Here is the text of my address to the 2017 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University on June 28, 2017.
大家好。Добрый день. Benvenuti. Welcome.
I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your graduate studies.
You are a special group – the best young business journalism minds in China, along with a unique mixture of nations: Iran, Israel, Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Turkey, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that many more of you will have an impact in the years to come, in journalism systems as disparate as Iran, the United States and China.
All of us in this room have our differences – cultural, geographical, even political – but one thing that unites us is the search for truth. As Jim Asher, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for his role in the Panama Papers investigation, said recently: “A world without facts can’t function.”
We live in an unsettling era when the concept of “truth” can be a matter of dispute. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Donald Trump, has declared that the White House is entitled to its own “alternative facts.” Whatever that means.
To the graduating class of 2017 and your proud professors, that’s just plain nonsense. We owe it to the public, whether we operate in the United States, China, or anywhere around the world, to share the truth, as best as we can tell it, and to explain what the truth means to our audience. As the 2017 National Press Club president, Jeffrey Ballou, said to fellow American journalists in Akron, Ohio: “Truth is not a game at all.”
The esteemed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Братья Карамазовы, The Brothers Karamazov, summed up the predicament of the perpetual prevaricator. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie,” he wrote, “comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
We must respect knowledge, respect truth, and respect ourselves. We owe it to the global public to use the knowledge we have gained about China and about global economics to provide our audiences with intelligent, insightful and factual reports. With your newfound expertise on the Chinese economy, globalization, corporate strategies and much more, you can communicate clearly and comprehensively, on any multimedia platform, about issues ranging from the Paris climate change accords to the Belt and Road Initiative.
One of my favorite philosophers, Nelson Mandela, said that “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
You have something very special – tools that you can use to make the world a more informed and a more just place. Because, as our dean, Liu Binjie, said in his speech welcoming many of you to the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in September 2016, “Justice is the soul of the news.”
Barbara Cochran, my successor as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, reminds us that truth is an imperfect pursuit, and journalists are imperfect people. “All news organizations make mistakes from time to time,” she said recently, “but they are trying to tell the truth and generally do it well.”
Truth and justice. The Global Business Journalism program has been trying to live up to the highest international standards for the past 10 years. Since 2007, the GBJ program has combined rigorous academics with practical journalism training in a cross-cultural setting at one of the world’s great universities.
Thanks to the vision of brilliant minds such as Professor Li Xiguang, ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan, and ICFJ vice president Vjollca Shtylla, the GBJ program was created. Thanks to the financial and journalistic support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Bank of America, it has grown and prospered. Thanks to the commitment of Tsinghua leaders like Dr. Hang Min, Dean Shi, Dean Chen, Dean Hu, Professor Lee Miller, Professor Dai Jia, and many more, it has a bright future. Thanks to dedicated and high-achieving alumni from some 60 countries, GBJ is improving the quality of journalism – and public understanding of economic issues — in China and around the world.
I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. In his 1947 book Man Against Myth, he concluded that understanding the truth was necessary to overcome society’s myths. “With words, as with knowledge generally,” my grandfather wrote, “there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact.”
Truth. Justice. Words. Knowledge. Tsinghua. That pretty much sums it up. Congratulations on your achievements in the Global Business Journalism Program. I look forward to your truth-telling in the years to come.