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The scientific maneuver Mueller used that implicates the president

Mueller does not set out to prove that the president engaged in obstruction of justice; he logically disproves all the ways in which he didn’t.

Robert Mueller.
Robert Mueller testifies during the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee in March 2013.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

If you are a fan of movies or stories where a clever protagonist uses cunning strategy or the tools of science to outmaneuver an opponent, then you’re going to love Volume 2 of the Mueller report. Special counsel Robert Mueller released his report Thursday in two volumes. Volume 1 is all about the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, businesses, or government actors. Volume 2 is all about the possibility that President Trump engaged in the criminal act of obstruction of justice during the investigation about his campaign.

The maneuver that Mueller uses in Volume 2 is extraordinary. It’s a social scientist‘s delight and should be used as a case example in research methods classes. Special counsel Mueller uses the logic and procedure of the scientific method to arrive at his conclusion in his investigation about the possibility of obstruction of justice. This is unusual because it is not the typical route that an attorney would use in building a case or preparing an investigatory report. In short, rather than providing evidence to support a claim of obstruction, Mueller essentially sets out to falsify a null hypothesis that obstruction did not occur.

The double-negative language that describes this procedure can be confusing. Here’s how it works. The scientific method that all scientists, natural or social, use involves a process called falsification. The method was popularized by a philosopher named Karl Popper, who in the mid 20th century wrote a book called The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper argues that in science it is not possible to “prove” anything; rather, scientists seek to theorize all the possible explanations for a phenomenon, and then seek evidence to disprove as many of those explanations as possible.

It’s a process of elimination. And this is exactly what Mueller does in his report. Mueller does not set out to prove that the president engaged in obstruction of justice; rather, Mueller recognizes that he is bound by the Attorney General’s interpretation of the law, which says the sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. In light of this legal interpretation, it would be futile for Mueller to build a case and demonstrate that the president should be charged with the crime of obstruction. So Mueller does something incredibly clever: He falsifies all of the alternative explanations.

In his report, special counsel Mueller walks through at least 10 specific instances in which the president or his staff may have engaged in obstruction of justice. Because his intent is not to frame the president or prove his wrongdoing, Mueller lays out all the possible explanations for what the president and his allies did. Then, one by one, Mueller provides the evidence showing that each of Trump’s associates who may have aided in obstructing justice in fact did not do so. The report exonerates these actors on this charge.

The report does not exonerate the president. But it goes much further than that. The report falsifies all of the possible reasons the president should be exonerated and shows each one of these claims to be false.

Using Karl Popper’s method of elimination, when all possible explanations except for one have been eliminated, then the remaining explanation must be true. This is the power of logic. Of course, it is possible that one might not imagine all of the possible explanations, or might not be able to test all of them. In Mueller’s case, he appears to have made an exhaustive search for explanations on the question of obstruction and he appears to have eliminated all of those explanations except for one.

In short, the only conclusion one can reasonably draw from the evidence Mueller presented is that the president in fact engaged in obstruction of justice. Mueller demonstrates the president’s culpability without making the case against the president directly, or providing supporting evidence that would accompany a criminal charge, because the law prevents the president from being charged with a criminal act as president. Mueller does it by proving that all the alternatives are false.

Attorney General Barr was right. Mueller does not prove the obstruction case. In fact, he proves that all the possible claims about the president not obstructing justice are false. By proving false all the claims that could exonerate the president, Mueller implicates his crimes without directly proving them.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that while President Trump may not be indictable now, the evidence in the Mueller report could be used as a basis of impeachment, as some Democrats are now investigating, or as a basis for charging the president when he is out of office.

The Mueller report turns out to be a crime novel, philosophy of science text, logic game, and strategic maneuver all at once. While many have pointed out that the report is essentially a Rorschach test of partisanship (Republicans see exoneration; Democrats see criminality), regardless of which color glasses you view it through, you have to admire the cunning of Robert Mueller.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system.

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