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Robert Mueller and His 'Vacuum-Activities'

Fish got to swim, birds got to fly,

I gotta get one man till I die,

Can't help nabbin’ dat man of mine. -- Adapted from Showboat

Anyone who has read the document appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” knows how far-reaching and indiscriminate that Bill of Attainder -- er, that enabling order is. Generally, prosecutors -- which manner of beast a special counsel essentially is -- are mustered when there is a crime to be investigated.

In this case, however, there was no identifiable crime. There was only suspicion -- and hard feelings, very hard feelings.

So Mr. Mueller -- who everyone, from Trey Gowdy on down, has repeatedly assured us is the straightest of straight arrows -- was given carte blanche. He was empowered to investigate not just “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” -- “links” as in golf courses? Who knows? -- but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” (my emphasis). And “any other matters (my emphasis) within the scope of” the relevant statute.

Then, the concluding nudge/incentive: “If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.”

To appreciate what a wide mandate Robert “straight-arrow” Mueller has been given, just cast your mind back over the nearly twenty people he has indicted so far, and consider especially what they have been indicted for. The stated rationale for this investigation, remember, was possible “collusion” -- it was the word of the moment several months ago -- between Donald Trump (or at least his campaign) and Vladimir Putin (or at least nefarious Russian actors standing in for Putin). But so far, we have:

  • General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security advisor, who was indicted for lying to the FBI during a set-up interview even though the agents conducting the interview concluded that he was telling the truth. That indictment is now under review.
  • George Papadopoulos, a young policy advisor to the Trump campaign, who was also indicted for lying to the FBI. Before he was associated with the campaign, Papadopoulos had encountered a Russian professor who told him the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, something he boasted about to an Australian diplomat (one with ties to the Clintons, as it turns out) during a night of drinking.
  • Then there was Paul Manafort, briefly Trump’s campaign manager, and his associate Rick Gates. They were indicted for money laundering and related activities that took place long before the 2016 campaign. (“Any other matters,” you see.)
  • Then there are the 13 Russian nationals who bought Facebook ads, set up bogus Twitter accounts, etc., in order to sow confusion and division during the 2016 campaign. Some of their activities were aimed at Hillary Clinton, some at Bernie Sanders, some at Donald Trump and other candidates. Their aim was the same as in previous elections going back to the 1920s: to create doubt and suspicion about the integrity of the democratic process.
  • Finally (well, not “finally,” really, but finally to date) there is the case of George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman with ties to the United Arab Emirates whom Mr. Mueller and his pack of prosecutors (16 at last count, all Democrats) are questioning about “any possible attempts by the Emiratis to buy political influence by directing money to support Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign.”

Meanwhile, CNN has dispatched reporters to Thailand to interview prostitutes who claim to have dirt on Donald Trump.

Yes, really.

What are we to make of all this sound and fury? Partly, I believe, it is simply partisan rage. Donald Trump was not supposed to win the election. It was declared to be impossible. And yet he did win. Ergo, he must have done so illicitly -- at least, there must be some way to make it seem illicit. Hence the advent of Robert Mueller, special counsel.

The problem thus far has been that the only “Russian collusion” to be uncovered is the surreptitious collusion between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee with Christopher Steele, who assembled the infamous “Dossier” from a congeries of unnamed Russian sources said to have ties the Russian government.

So the “Russian collusion” meme has turned out to be an unprofitable avenue of inquiry. Hence the score of indictments on other matters -- any other matters. As Andrew McCarthy has argued in a brilliant series of articles, the Mueller investigation is now focused not on whether Trump “colluded” with the Russians to win the election -- it is clear to everyone except the lunatic NeverTrump fringe (here’s looking at you Gabe!) that he didn’t -- but rather to spread like manure a blanket of suspicion that can be mobilized to institute impeachment proceedings should the Democrats retake the House in November.

I am not sure it is widely appreciated just how bizarre this situation is. The conventional wisdom is that, should the Democrats take control of the House in the midterm elections, they would endeavor to impeach a duly elected president. I have no idea whether that conventional wisdom is true, but if it is true, it is a shocking indictment of the Democrats.

But let me finally get to Konrad Lorenz, the great Austrian ethologist. I suspect that his book  Studies in Animal and Human Behavior contains a key to Robert Mueller’s behavior. For the sake of argument, I will take it as granted that Mr. Mueller is, as everyone says, a by-the-book straight-arrow honest man. But like the fish and birds of which Julie sings in Showboat, Robert Mueller, qua special counsel -- that is, qua prosecutor, can’t help himself. Prosecuting is what he does.

In this respect, his behavior resembles that described by Konrad Lorenz under the category of “vacuum-activities.” Certain breeds of dogs, long deprived of bones and dirt, will act out burying a non-existent bone in non-existent dirt, in the corner of a room, say. Bone-burying is innate behavior in dogs. Take away the proper objects -- real bones and real dirt -- and the behavior will “discharge” itself in the make-believe activity. As the philosopher David Stove observed, commenting on Lorenz: “After a certain point, bone-free life is just too boring for dogs.”

I believe we see something similar in Robert Mueller’s behavior. Prosecutors, like humans, are animals, and they, too, display innate behavior patterns. Mueller has been given a task that might have stymied Hercules. The commandment was clear: uncover and prosecute the collusion between the Trump campaign and the Ruskies. But there was no such collusion. So there he is, digging, digging, digging, burying all those imaginary bones in the corner of the room and getting appreciative pats on the head from the New York Times and CNN whenever he gnaws on the leg of another hapless victim of his vacuum-activity.