Poirot on the Potomac
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Poirot on the Potomac

Carefully Targeting Trump’s Associates, Robert Mueller Crafts a Classic Whodunit

By Terry H. Schwadron

Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III may be among the very few people still able to spin a good mystery. He should consider writing one.

For sure, the guilty plea by former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn on a single count of lying to the FBI proved explosive, surprising and dramatic —all the things you want from a good mystery story. And now, you’re ready for more.

By keeping the wrongdoing to a single, simple count, Mueller at once served notice on the White House that he has plenty of ammunition yet to fire, and, in the prosecutorial sense, kept his options open with Flynn himself, who needs to flip totally in order to repel more serious charges.

Mueller’s move was deft, swift, quiet and legally deadly.

In contrast, television news commentators went wild in search of The Big Meaning. Reporters were shouting at the White House for comment, and talking heads were full-throated in repeating over and over that, actually, they did not know what was next. They should have remembered that if you know whether the butler did the murder on the first page, you’re likely not to finish the tale. Author Mueller even worked in a couple of calls to unnamed “top senior officials” within the Trump orbit to keep us all on edge.

Well done. As much as I may have been intrigued to see the political consequences of the all-things-Russia investigation to wend its circuitous path inside the White House, I was delighted to see how literary Mueller seems to be in his approach.

Mueller’s got his literary tools in order—the possibilities of devastating dialogue, of intriguing characters, and, of course, of the plot of a world gone mad because Country A has helped elect a friend as president of Country B.  Oddly, Mueller, a seemingly leak-proof investigator and prosecutor, has turned the rest of us—Congress members as well as citizens—into passive, if avid, readers who eagerly await the next chapter. For sure, Mueller has a flair for the dramatic.

As with all novels, we get caught up in the motivations of the various characters. Donald Trump is the easiest player to recognize, of course, regardless of how the actual legal investigation of obstruction of justice reveals itself. He is the greedy guy behind the curtain who wants to control the world and to be loved for his efforts; in his mind, he got to be president on his own merits, without any Russian thumb on the scales.

For Flynn, Mueller seems to have chosen a weaselly character who would shout “Lock her up” about the political opponent, only to find himself neatly putting his tail between his legs to walk into a courtroom himself only to emerge as a criminal felon. His fall from the top is a story within a story. He went from a heroic general to someone who made up facts and stories within the Pentagon to a place at Trump’s side in the campaign, all the while working on behalf of other countries while professing his love of America in big capitalized letters.

From here, it looks as if we are being pointed in the direction of the president’s overly pretentious son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a colorless chameleon whose businesses have run on the edge of legal while his self-described role within the White House as an unpaid adviser is as wide as the screen where this teleplay is unfolding.

Papadopoulos, Manafort and Flynn.

Just for literary amusement, all of the characters touched so far by Mueller have taken on his own vow of silence. So, the previous appearances on stage by former campaign manager and Ukrainian lobbyist Paul Manafort, deputy Rick Gates, and former Trump adviser (“at a low level”) George Papadopolous and now Flynn all came about with no advance word for an increasingly nervous White House.

Indeed, just to help out, Trump, who created stories of whole cloth himself, is helping at appropriate moments by acting out with seemingly deranged Twitter outbursts and odd pronouncements at moments of his own nervousness, a facile way to try moving the focus of the Mueller investigation.

The bit players, too, from James Comey, as the former FBI chief whose firing is at the core of at least part of these Mueller investigations, to the weird testimony of  Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who comically cannot seem to remember anything that he did on any day of interest, are colorful and lively. Just for amusement, there are really nutty characters playing dark knight Steve Bannon and political mosquito Roger Stone.

I know, the Mueller investigations are deadly serious. But absorbing it all as a literary piece makes it easier to live through without crying. He is Making Trump Great Again.

Terry H. Schwadron is a former editor for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Providence Journal and is an active volunteer with immigrants and writers and plays trombone in New York City. He blogs here.

December 4, 2017