Robert S. Mueller III’s report is a gift to the nation, which now knows what was already a reasonable surmise: that its chief executive’s unlovely admiration for a repulsive foreign regime, Vladimir Putin’s, is more a dereliction of taste and judgment than evidence that he is under that regime’s sway. The report is an even larger gift to the nation because it might help stabilize the Democratic Party — if the party reacts more reasonably to it than most of the party’s most conspicuous presidential candidates have been reacting to the political stimuli of 2019. What Mueller’s report makes possible is something like a normal presidential election in 2020.
After thousands of hours of cable television obsessing about Mueller’s report in advance of it, with most of the obsessives basing their speculations on less than the reading of tea leaves or of chicken entrails, and most of the obsessives grinding partisan axes, it is difficult, but important, to remember two things. First, before Mueller was appointed special counsel, it was indisputable that Russia hacked American emails as part of its activities to work for Donald Trump’s election. Second, while Mueller investigated these activities, the accusation of 2016 collusion between professional Russian operatives and the ramshackle Trump campaign apparatus was already implausible because Russia could pursue its ends without coordinating its activities with a campaign rife with lowlifes and bottom-of-the-barrel Republican operatives.
The report comes to no conclusion about whether Trump intended to obstruct justice. This agnosticism is, however, a politically nullity: Voters are unlikely to care what the president intended when he used a constitutional power (e.g., firing the FBI director) or indulged his incontinent anger (rhetorically and on Twitter) during an investigation into an alleged crime he did not commit.
The office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is conducting various investigations into the commercial activities of Trump and his family, investigations that could threaten, or at least embarrass, the president. Or, more precisely, they perhaps could if Stormy Daniels’s former friend were complicated enough to be embarrassed. But this, too, is probably of negligible political importance, given what already is known about the grifter in chief. For example, you cannot sling a brick in Manhattan without hitting a talented lawyer, and Trump chose Michael Cohen.
The report’s exoneration of Trump regarding knowing collaboration with, beyond his undisguised admiration for, the Russian thugocracy has stirred up his limitless insouciance. He should, however, consider this:
Suppose he had been badly wounded by the report — wounded among “Trump Triers” who, repelled by Hillary Clinton, took a flyer on him 28 months ago; to his base, any criticism of him validates his disparagement of critics. He then might have seemed so weakened that the Democratic nominating electorate could indulge its fancies, unconstrained by worries about electability.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pitch-perfect, five-word suffocation of the impeachment agitation coming from the wilder shores of her party — “He’s just not worth it” — was welcome. But the world’s oldest and, by reasonable metrics, greatest political party, which led this nation through two world wars and its worst economic crisis, today seems unable to process the following:
An embarrassed nation aches for a president who is one thing: normal. Democrats, however, are looking weirder and weirder while cooking a bouillabaisse of indigestible ingredients: End meat, air travel, private health insurance, the distinction between late-term abortion and infanticide and perhaps Israel as a Jewish state; defend “constitutional norms” by abolishing the electoral college, changing the nature of the Senate and enlarging the Supreme Court to make it more representative, i.e., to break it to the saddle of politics; give socialism one more chance; etc.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940), an American radical, purportedly said that if elections changed anything, they would be illegal. If she did say that, she was wrong. The 2016 election changed the nation’s too serene sense of itself as immune to the sort of grotesque electoral outcomes that other nations experience. After Mueller’s report, the 2020 election will be about various normal issues — health care, the economy’s strength and the equity of its results, etc. — but above all it will be about this: Is the current tone of public life, which is set by the president, the best America can do?
Thanks to Mueller, the 2020 campaign will not be about the 2016 campaign. It will be about a post-Trump future — if unhinged Democrats can stop auctioning themselves to their party’s most clamorous factions, thereby making Trump seem to be what Mueller’s report does not say that he is: acceptable.