Far too many people, including many who should have known better, placed their hopes in a decisive bombshell from Mueller, even while the special counsel lodged a series of indictments that spotlighted Russian interference and crimes by Trump-connected individuals, but no collusion.
Attorney General William P. Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s report duly noted the special counsel’s view that his investigation “does not exonerate” Trump of obstruction of justice growing out of his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017.
Some Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans (those few who are left) are fastening on to that language as the possible starting point for more digging, more hearings, more — whatever.
No doubt there is some benefit to be had, fundraising-wise, by keeping true believers fired up. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled a wiser course by disavowing impeachment, which is another way of telling her troops that they’re probably stuck with Trump through 2020. That is, the solution is to win at the polls the same way Democrats did in 2018: The only way out is through.
Constitutionally, that is also the best course. Absent impeachment-worthy evidence that he engaged in unlawful collusion and obstruction, the remedy for Trump is, and probably always was, the system’s checks and balances, which seem to be working — imperfectly but fairly well, judging by the Republican defeat in 2018 and some 63 federal court rulings blocking his policies.
Two years into his presidency, Trump remains repugnant: a dishonest and profane figure less intellectually or temperamentally suited for national leadership than any occupant of the White House since Andrew Johnson, the bombastic Southern sympathizer who succeeded Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Surrounded by second-raters and sleazeballs (some now facing prison time), Trump lacks not only the initiative but also the guts to engineer anything as audacious as a conscious plot with Moscow, another reason to credit Mueller’s finding. In hindsight, it was never likely that the president would fire Mueller, or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, despite his own bluster, and much breathless media speculation, to that effect. It would have required too much political courage.
Trump also remains enigmatic: It’s not precisely clear how or why we ended up with him as president, or exactly what this difficult passage, whether it lasts four years or eight, portends for the United States and the world. Above all, it remains unclear to what degree he is the cause of our political disorder, and to what degree a symptom.
In that regard, special counsel Mueller has been trying to send us a message for some time now, albeit between the lines of his indictments.
That message is that Russia, an authoritarian foreign power guided by deep hostility to liberal democracy generally and to U.S. global influence in particular, did indeed target the American political system for disruption and distortion, with the objectives of weakening the establishment candidate, Clinton, whom he loathed (but, like everyone else, expected to win), and of helping Trump, the “chaos candidate,” as Jeb Bush memorably dubbed him.
Russia, Mueller wrote in a February 2018 indictment of some 13 Russian operatives and three organizations, “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” mainly by spreading false and inflammatory information through social media.
It was a sophisticated effort, guided by a keen understanding of the American electorate, its fissures and its fault lines — racial, regional and religious.
Mueller knew there was no actual chance of hauling Russian agents into an American court. But by narrating the “manner and means of the conspiracy” by which a foreign power exploited the divisions within our society, he might have caused us to reflect upon and, eventually, heal them.
So far, that aspect of the Mueller investigation has not received the attention, or inspired the action, that it merits. Unless and until it does, American democracy will remain vulnerable to outside interference and to the demons we breed at home.