George Pyle: When being open-minded becomes a weakness

Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. ... And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt, interview in The New York Review of Books, October 26, 1978

This is what we are approaching, an era in which everything is so confusing and impossible to pin down that the public sphere just leaves people dizzy. So they leave it to others, others who can navigate the world of smoke and mirrors and rule over the people because most of us have just given up.

And it is happening with the active and willing assistance of some of the people Utahns have elected to represent them in Congress.

The president of the United States was the beneficiary — though not, apparently, the architect — of a deliberate and dastardly attack on American democracy by the Russian government. The then-candidate and his people were aware of what was happening, found joy in that knowledge, didn’t tell the world or call the cops.

But, because the campaign was only aware of the ongoing bank robbery, reasonably expected to be enriched by it only indirectly, and never actually pulled a gun or blew a safe, the cop on the beat concluded that those who were in the process of taking power in the United States of America couldn’t be charged with a crime.

And, because when the president cried, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest,” no one did, special counsel Robert Mueller decided that he could not bring a criminal charge of obstruction of justice against the president. Or, based on past Justice Department thinking, any president.

Until he leaves office. Or until Congress impeaches and removes him.

The release Thursday of (most of) Mueller’s report was maddening in that it outlined a long list of dirty deeds committed by and for the president but was never able to take a firm stand that the chief executive, or any of the people near him who have not already been indicted and/or convicted, did something clearly illegal. And that, even if the president is a crook, controlling legal theory holds that a sitting president can’t be charged with a crime by his own executive branch.

Absent the clear image of the president being led away in handcuffs, the remaining fog made it easy for his sycophants and hangers-on to claim that there was no crime or wrongdoing.

“The office of the attorney general and the special counsel have concluded that there was no collusion and no obstruction,” said Utah Rep. Rob Bishop. Falsely.

"Mr. Mueller conducted a detailed and thorough investigation that mirrors what we found in the House Intelligence investigation — no collusion or conspiracy between the Trump Campaign and Russia,” said Rep. Chris Stewart. Dancing along the edge of the truth.

“The Mueller report is finally available and it is definitive: there was no collusion,” said Sen. Mike Lee. Misleadingly.

Sen. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has had the decency to be “sickened” by what is in the Mueller report, while Reps. John Curtis and Ben McAdams are, quite reasonably, withholding judgment until they have a chance to carefully review all the information.

What the report really said is easy to manipulate because its authors were responsibly tied down to narrow legal definitions — no criminal conspiracy does not mean no common purpose, for example — while politicians of all stripes are free to use whichever words and phrases suit them.

Among the report’s more definitive statements: “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

And, "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. We are unable to reach that judgment.”

The joke about liberal intellectuals is that they can be so open-minded that their brains fall out. That they won’t even defend their own point of view. Those who like to see themselves as thinking people brag that they can, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But we find ourselves in times when those in power are out to bamboozle us, and significant sections of the mass media have no qualms about just fibbing all the time. So what would in normal times be a humble effort to reserve judgment, or an intellectually rigorous belief that you might be mistaken, gets weaponized against you.

And you become vulnerable to elected officials telling you not only that two plus two equals nine, but also that if you disagree with them you are disrespecting their right to express themselves.

The Mueller report did not give us the gift of a definitive answer to Richard Nixon’s standard: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”

But for anyone who claims to hold the public’s trust, to state firmly that this president is not a crook is just not supported by any of the facts as we know them.

Let’s let the House Judiciary Committee do it’s job. Because it’s all just too head-spinning for the rest of us to take in.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, remembers the advice of the editor who wanted to hire a one-armed editorial writer because he would never say, “On the other hand...” gpyle@sltrib.com