Let’s rewind the clock to 11 months ago, when special counsel Robert S. Mueller III announced his first set of indictments in the investigation into foreign interference during the 2016 election. Back then I wrote the following:
The past week reveals the more subtle threat that Mueller and his team pose to the Trump White House. Simply put, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is demonstrating by his actions how a competent person runs a government agency. Trump’s White House is demonstrating the exact opposite. ...
As special counsel, Mueller has recruited an elite team, acted swiftly, issued credible threats, and has started addressing long-standing patterns of corruption inside the Beltway. It is no wonder that he is polling better than Trump right now. The former FBI director is far better at governing than the former reality-television star.
That contrast will be on display well into the next year. It will drive Trump crazy.
It is worth rereading that quoted portion for several reasons. The first is that hot damn that was some good punditry! I write Spoiler Alerts four times a week for most weeks out of the year. That is a lot of content. It can be hard for columns to age gracefully. The odds that I will be this prescient in all my takes is not good. But I was pretty clearly right back in October 2017. Let me savor this one, is all I am saying.
A more important reason is that with the passage of time, it is possible to update the original take. Some of the key differences between the two teams in 2017 diverged even further in 2018. Trump’s burn rate through staff has escalated, while Mueller’s team has remained largely intact. Trump’s team is so riddled with holes that senior administration officials publish anonymous op-eds in the New York Times about the president’s awfulness. The White House cannot identify who wrote it because there are too many suspects. Contrast that with Mueller; I cannot find a single quote from his team that describes him in a derogatory manner. Actually, I cannot find a single quote from his team that describes Mueller at all because his team has been remarkable good at not leaking.
Mueller’s threats have also continued to be more credible than Trump. To date, Mueller has secured either convictions or guilty pleas from everyone he indicted who is not a Russian national. This does not count Michael Cohen’s plea deal or the separate prosecution against Maria Butina. Meanwhile, Trump continues to radiate bellicose bluster and empty threats on the international stage with remarkably little to show for it. Unsurprisingly, Mueller continues to score better poll numbers than Trump.
The most important reason is that with news of Paul Manafort’s cooperation with the special counsel, one must appreciate how much better Mueller has been at fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises than Trump himself. Trump promised to drain the swamp of corruption. He and his administration have instead relabeled the Beltway from “swamp” to “elite mud bath” and invited the entire GOP to come hang out at the spa. The raft of administration scandals puts the lie to the notion that Trump would be an anti-corruption fighter. Instead, all the Republicans accused of ill-gotten gain can do is copy Trump and blame the Deep State.
Mueller, meanwhile, appears poised to use the Manafort plea deal to go after other lobbyists for foreign governments who skirt the rules. According to the New York Times’s Kenneth Vogel, the cooperation agreement will put pressure on some of Manafort’s partners: “Mr. Manafort’s friends, and associates who worked with him in Ukraine, say that he might have more valuable information about Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians, and the Western firms that have helped them, including ones that he recruited, such as Podesta, Mercury and Skadden.”
With Manafort’s plea agreement, one final difference is revealed. When he was running for president, Trump ludicrously claimed that he would be able to eliminate $19 trillion in U.S. federal debt in eight years. In actuality, the federal government’s debt has exploded since he came into office. This is entirely consistent with his record as a businessman.
One of Trump’s minor-key complaints about Mueller is the cost of the investigation. He tweeted, “At what point does this soon to be $20,000,000 Witch Hunt, composed of 13 Angry and Heavily Conflicted Democrats and two people who have worked for Obama for 8 years, STOP!”
That was all sorts of wrong when Trump tweeted it, but it is even more wrong now. In reaching his plea deal, Manafort agreed to hand over more than $46 million in property and more liquid assets to the federal government. As Marcy Wheeler noted, “with this forfeiture, the Mueller investigation just more than paid for itself.”
No one is perfect, and I am sure Mueller has made mistakes in his life. But when one compares him to Trump, one cannot help but conclude that he is better at every aspect of governing.