Mueller Was Never Going to Save Us — And That’s a Good Thing

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1973 Political Cartoon

After waiting, Godot-like, for two years, the Mueller report and the nation’s anticipation of its conclusions has reached the endpoint. Filtered through the not-at-all-biased report of AG Barr, Mueller’s handiwork has landed as the most divisive denouement since the Sopranos finale. Not since the great kale shortage of ’16 has there been a such a general feeling of malaise on the left; all that remains is the rending of garments. The right, meanwhile, has unsurprisingly already chosen to weaponize the presumed results of the investigation, with the President, as usual, leading the charge to turn the tables on his reputed accusers. “What they did — it was a false narrative, it was a terrible thing,” Trump said. “We can never let this happen to another president again.” All this without a single page of the report being made public. No matter: in modern America, partisanship can climb Everest before facts can buy climbing boots. Even without the full report, however, (we have, at this writing, 81 words out of hundreds of pages) we can glean certain results.

Firstly, the idea now pushed by the Trumpistas that Russiagate was a lie, a fabrication, a myth dreamed up by an enraged left to nullify the election of an honorable President — is plainly ludicrous. If Mueller was engaged in a witch-hunt, he must have cast his line in the Land of Oz, because he caught an awful lot of witches: 34 individuals, including President Trump’s campaign manager, attorney, national security adviser, the head of the inaugural committee, and multiple campaign aides have been charged or plead guilty to criminal activity. In virtually any other administration, this would not be exoneration but a scandal of historic proportions. Further, while the Administration (and, it should be said, the same Congressional peddlers of the unending and ghastly Benghazi delusion) persists in calling Mueller’s actions unnecessary and biased, recall two facts. First, the Russia investigation occurred because a crime was undoubtedly committed: a foreign hostile power hacked into protected computers targeting Americans in an effort to affect a US presidential election while at the same time launching a social media campaign targeting voters in an attempt to affect the outcome thereof. And second, the investigation into Trump’s campaign associates occurred in no small part because a campaign aide learned that the Democrats had been targeted in the hack before the Democrats themselves even knew it had occurred. These are facts, and they are unequivocal- in fact, they were broadcast loudly and proudly: In an Aug. 21, 2016, tweet, weeks before John Podesta’s emails were leaked, the now-indicted Roger Stone wrote, “Trust me, it will soon [be] the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” These facts alone suggested the need for an investigation. When combined with Trump’s (still inexplicable) fawning, obsequious courting of Vladimir Putin, a refusal to investigate would look less like forbearance and more like dereliction of duty.

Secondly, Mueller did not fail in his appointed task, no matter the disappointment. Mueller was not appointed to investigate “collusion,” whatever that nebulous (and non legal) word even means. His remit was fare more specific: to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Such a narrow mandate not only kept him from taking on ancillary investigations a la Kenneth Starr, but also kept him singularly focused on finding solely criminal activity between the Russian government (not Wikileaks or Russians generally , but the Putin regime) and the Trump campaign. The remit suggested the outcome. The famously effective Russian intelligence agencies would be dramatically unlikely to openly and knowingly cast their lot with an imprudent, chaotic campaign leaking information like a sieve. Agencies which have managed to poison dissidents in Western countries in broad daylight without leaving a footprint were always highly unlikely to leave digital footprints laying around with such an untrustworthy and freewheeling campaign, let alone one widely expected to lose. Nor did they have to: Trump broadcast his desire for Russian assistance over Twitter and in his famous July 27, 2016 request of “Russia, if you’re listening” plea to find Hillary Clinton’s emails. Thanks to Mueller’s indictments, we know that the very same day, Russian hackers began an effort to break into 76 different e-mail accounts associated with the Clinton campaign. Clandestine coordination wasn’t needed, and the “why” was as clear as a cloudless summer’s day. Vladimir Putin clearly saw the destabilizing effects of having an emotionally stunted, intentionally divisive, and authoritarian leaning President at the helm of his great rival, and acted accordingly. Neither Trump nor his campaign needed to conspire when their complementary interests were so perfectly aligned.

And yet, the dark disappointment of crushed hopes has enveloped many on the left. The exhilarating allure of scandal politics as reality TV explains some of it. But more lays behind the disappointment. So long as Mueller existed in the body politic, Sphynx-like and impenetrable as he moved beneath the waves, surfacing only to torpedo a hapless indicted target, moving ever so closely to the President, Democrats could tell themselves that the country really hadn’t dutifully elected a man defined largely by the toxic stream of racial resentment and childish bluster. It had to have been the Russians, cheating with Trump, and hence the reckoning of just how degraded the American electoral process had become, just how easily millions of citizens could be turned into avatars of cruelty against the rest, could be avoided. Yet the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, and with Mueller’s conclusions (assuming them to be true), there is no avoiding it: millions saw the empty center of a cruel, cheap bully, and embraced it, openly, honestly, and legitimately. In doing so, the American voters conferred the legitimacy of the highest office in the country upon a man vastly unsuited to wearing such grand garb. Without the comforting swaddle conferred by pretense of illegitimacy, the left has nowhere left to turn but to face the voters’ choice head on- to understand it, and hopefully, change it at the ballot box. In a functioning democracy, that is indeed for the best.

Of course, even if Mueller had delivered “the goods”, as so many shorthanded his hoped for findings, nothing — absolutely nothing — would have changed. The deification of St. Mueller expressed an emotional plea wrapped within the blanket of law: may this honest, upright man of the bygone Republican party deliver such a clear and compelling factual stream that even the dam of Republican opposition to removing the President could be breached. Yet that was never within the range of the likely, or even the possible. Facts no longer move public opinion, and without public opinion as a barometer for rectitude, Republican politicians would see no incentive to move. Mueller couldn’t save us — as impeachment is the lone Congressional recipe for removal, only Mitch McConnell could, and McConnell’s consistent amoral service of plutocracy suggests virtually no fact pattern that could cause him to take the wrenching step of taking on a sitting President of his own party, let alone an erratic burgeoning autocrat with 59 million Twitter followers. McConnell would well remember the beating Republicans took at the polls after Watergate, and would almost certainly make the calculation that he, charisma devoid and already viewed with side-eyed suspicion by the Trumpian base, would be better off winning re-election with Trump than by taking him — and his Twitter account — on directly. The Mueller fantasy was always dependent on Mitch McConnell being the man that proponents believe Mueller is. But that turtle won’t hunt.

Nor would a finding by Mueller of a vast criminal conspiracy have been something to celebrate. Liberals pining for the fantasy of Mueller never seemed to grasp that McConnell would never move against Trump anymore than they grasped that findings suggesting McConnell should do so could only result from the worst crime committed by a United States politician since the Civil War. For the narrative Mueller could have uncovered that would have even merited an upturned eyebrow by McConnell would have necessarily confirmed not just collusion — Republicans had already determined that Hillary was a more existential threat than Putin and excused any collusion — but that the President of the United States was an active agent of a hostile foreign power. It is an odd form of patriotism to actively hope that the American president was and is a Russian operative under the control of Vladimir Putin. Nor would impeachment have been anything other than the wrenching, partisan trauma that it always has been. In the imaginary America where it was possible, a Trump impeachment would not heal the nation’s wounds anymore than Clinton’s did; rather, it would dramatically exacerbate them. Impeachment for a President for being a Russian dupe, contested bitterly by partisans, would not be Watergate, ended by the honorable members of both parties closing ranks against a criminal outlier. It would be a heightened version of our already cold civil war, pulling at the bonds of the nation to the breaking point and potentially beyond. Sometimes it’s best not to test the continued existence of Constitutional norms, for fear that what appears sturdy instead crumbles to dust in your hands.

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© NYT

That is not to say progressives should not be dismayed. The President of the United States remains the greatest security threat to this nation, a man who savages John McCain but admits to “love” for Kim Jong Un. And nor should honest independents and the few remaining honorable Republicans who represent them rest easy, either. Having suffered no penalty for his brazen interference in 2016, one can only wonder what Putin, and any other interloping autocrat, has in store for 2020. Trump may not be colluding with Russia, but the same man who notoriously asked Russia to “find Hillary’s emails” will not lift a finger to punish Russia for its actions, understanding intuitively, regardless of his stated remarks, that Putin’s intercession assisted his victory. In August 2017, Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, despite calling it “seriously flawed.” He then ignored a congressionally mandated deadline in January, 2018 to act on the bill and impose new sanctions on Russia for the election allegations. Trump’s chummy statements on Putin — “Every time he sees me, he says, I didn’t do that. And I believe it. I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” — suggest strongly that collusion or no, the interests of Putin and Trump will once again be conveniently congruent. Patriots of all stripes and both parties must take every step necessary to ward off further Russian activity. CAATSA was passed 98–2 in the Senate and 419–3 in the House; perhaps now, with the threat of Mueller to the President having receded, the Congressional sunshine patriots who have ducked behind the shadows of Trumpist bombast can re-emerge to ensure that our intelligence service are well prepared for the onslaught sure to come. And one way or another, we the people must pressure them to do just that.

Of course, in doing so, we (and they) will be sure to be opposed by the Administration. And therein lies the risk. Whereas prior Presidents were chagrined by independent investigations, even where they raged against them, they always felt boxed in by public opinion; spread too far in the direction of kingly prerogative, and public opinion would swing dramatically against them. In the last great investigation, for example, President Clinton actually asked Attorney General Reno to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Whitewater. Reno appointed a Republican, Robert Fiske (soon to be replaced by the infamous Starr), who immediately told reporters that, as the New York Times recounted, “he planned a broad inquiry that would include questioning the President and his wife, Hillary, under oath and an examination of any possible links to the suicide of a senior White House aide.” President Clinton’s reaction was simply “Whatever he wants to look into, let him do that. It’s not my business to comment on that.” Clinton was not a placid, Obama-like figure: his temper was well known. Yet he responded in this fashion because he feared that brushing off the whiff of scandal would harm his party, his ability to marshal public opinion behind his policy priorities, and eventually, his re-election.

Trump, of course, regularly raged against Mueller, emasculated his own Attorney General, fired James Comey, and did all he could to delegitimize and politicize the investigation. Part of this is that he lacks even a particle of principle in his composition other than self-preservation and glorification. But a larger reason is that public opinion ceased to respond. Through more flailing and debacles than I can fit into a page, let alone a paragraph, Trump’s approval ratings have remained staggeringly consistent. 40% of the electorate, give or take a percentage point, is with him no matter what. A nauseating 78% of Fox News viewers in a recent poll think that Trump has accomplished more than any other president in history, a fact so far down the chasm of insanity I’m surprised the words don’t simply delete themselves in utter shame. Trump has enormous room to maneuver so long as 40% of the electorate simply cocoons themselves in the fantasy that their strongman is accomplishing something more than the placebo effect of renewed social ordering. Even the release of the report, should it come, will not accomplish anything. (Although, as an aside, we must keep the pressure on to see the report. As a reminder, the Starr report detailing such critical information as the smoking apparatus the President used as a sex toy was deemed relevant to the public and released by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives).

The sunlight of the full report should in theory help settle differences. Yet partisanship as social identity will distort the results of even a full, unredacted report. Whatever the conclusions, different groups will interpret the black and white text in vastly different ways, twisting certain provisions for their own ends. If this sounds like Biblical interpretation, that’s because it is — the schism in modern America resembles nothing less than a religious difference, and religious differences aren’t settled by sober recitation of facts.

As for what happens now, if history and the make of the man is any guide, we are entering a potentially dark time. Feeling their oats, Trump and his fellow travelers have taken the (ironically very Russian) step of calling for a virtual purge of the communities within the media and within the intelligence community who prompted the Mueller probe. The Trump campaign on March 25 sent a memo to television producers demanding they blacklist, among others, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Jerrod Nadler, and former CIA Director John Brennan for making “outrageous and unsupported claims” in the past. Irony, were it on a ventilator before, is now well and truly dead. Yet the memo is a harbinger of worse in the future, and potentially hearkens back to a colder past as well. In 2000, at the dawn of his presidency, Vladimir Putin faced media scrutiny and massive public criticism over the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk. Putin lashed out at the media in Trumpian fashion, saying “There are people in television today who … over the last 10 years destroyed the very army and fleet where people are dying now … They stole money, they bought the media, and they’re manipulating public opinion. They’re lying. They’re lying.” It was Putin’s first big lie; within months, the owner of the television station which most vehemently criticized him was indicted on flimsy charges, fled to Britain, and had the station taken over by the Kremlin. He was later found hung in his apartment in Great Britain. No one, of course, expects America to look like Russia. But it’s worth remembering that at the dawn of Putin’s anti-media assault, no one in Russia expected Russia to look like Russia, either.

The President, of course, is indifferent to such parallels, ramping up the heated language by stating that those who prompted the probe “did treasonous things against our country,” which his flack Sarah Huckabee Sanders helpfully told the media “is punishable by death in this country.” Delivered in the same week that the President noted that, speaking of Democratic opposition, that “ I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad” — the storm clouds may well be gathering.

***

And so, there is no deux ex Mueller to the Trump interregnum. As we stand in the detritus of the wreckage, fearing the emboldened President, I find myself instead recalling the words of our last President. Speaking on the campaign trail in February, 2008, during what seems like a sunnier, more positive time, Barack Obama reminded us that “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” While the words were soaring, even vainglorious, they sounded a modest tone. I cannot solve everything. Only we, together, can accomplish our goals. Democrats need to cease their search for the Great Man of History to solve the nation’s problems and re-create the world without an extremist, poisoned partner in governance. Obama could not do it alone anymore than Mueller could. All the t-shirts in the world, all the “It’s Mueller Time!” slogans cannot change the fact that our country is brutally broken and divided. “This is not who we are”, chanted after each successive outrage, isn’t the answer. This is exactly who we are, and it must change. There is no magic solution, no one man or woman (and remember this come 2020) who can fix the long illness from which we suffer. Only we, somehow, some way, can be ones we’re waiting for. Government cannot save us. Instead, we must save government. That is, in the end, the burden and the promise of liberty. The Mueller report is done. The battle for the future, however, is very much alive.

Lawyer by day. Star Wars aficionado by night. Hug a wookie and fight the dark side.

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