The more interesting comparisons come from the mainstream media, which make the opposite point: The Ukraine scandal demonstrates the shortcomings of Mueller’s investigation. Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press,” for example, has suggested that the political failure of the Mueller probe haunts the impeachment inquiry:
An even better example is the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, who has repeatedly argued that “Mueller’s convoluted report was a gift to Trump. Mueller’s long investigation uncovered extensive evidence of a president who had broken the law and abused his power, but Mueller did almost nothing to hold the president accountable.” In Leonhardt’s eyes, Mueller pulled his punches because he “prized his reputation for floating above partisan politics.” He therefore compares unfavorably to the more courageous trio of Marie Yovanovitch, William B. Taylor Jr. and George Kent. Leonhardt is hardly the only commentator to perceive Mueller and his report as producing a “swing and miss on Russia.”
Full disclosure: None of this makes any sense to me.
Bob Mueller was never going to swoop into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and put the cuffs on Donald Trump. As a Department of Justice employee bound by department guidelines that affirm a sitting president cannot be indicted, Mueller never had the authority to do that. Furthermore, Mueller was never going to go beyond what the evidence said, which was why he did not conclude that the Trump campaign conspired with a foreign power to influence the campaign.
What Mueller did do, under intense political pressure, was his job. He reported what he learned, which was significant. He successfully prosecuted a number of Trump officials, including the 2016 campaign manager, deputy campaign manager and national security adviser. He farmed out investigations peripheral to his remit to other elements of the DOJ to avoid accusations of overreach. He assembled a pretty overwhelming case that Trump repeatedly and knowingly attempted to obstruct justice by interfering in the investigation. He pushed back when Attorney General William P. Barr mischaracterized the conclusions in his report. He did all of this in under two years, which is quicker than the average length of a special counsel/special prosecutor investigation.
Mueller perfectly fits the mold of public servants that David Brooks described as “generally not all that interested in partisan politics but are deeply committed to the process and substance of good government.” Indeed, Mueller proved himself to be far better at draining the swamp than Trump ever was.
Leonhardt and others seem to believe that had Mueller been more forceful, perhaps that would have swayed Congress and the public to support impeachment sooner. This was never Mueller’s job, however, just as it was not the job of Yovanovitch, Kent or Taylor to lobby for impeachment. Mueller gave Congress a road map for what it could do in response to Trump’s transgressions; he was never going to drive the car as well.
In retrospect, Chuck Todd is incorrect to say that the Mueller probe has hamstrung the impeachment inquiry — or, rather, his analysis is incomplete. Mueller’s report softened the ground — it made it more conceivable to believe that Trump would abuse his power in other parts of his presidency. As Quinta Jurecic noted in the Atlantic last week, “the Ukraine scandal is a thematic sequel to the Russia investigation, as well as a chronological one. … The stories of greed and abuse of power are the same. And so, too, is the stolid sincerity of the civil servants who have found themselves cast opposite the president in this national drama.” Indeed, the Mueller probe continues to tie the president up in knots of his own making.
Jurecic concluded her essay by noting: “The only answer to these problems is the work of what civil servants such as Mueller and Taylor reject: politics. This is frustrating and unsatisfactory. But it is the only answer there has ever been.” She is correct. The best and most proper way for Trump to exit the White House is through political means. Leonhardt blasts Mueller because he “tossed the hard decisions to Congress.” Mueller had no authority or legitimacy to do anything else.
Expecting bureaucratic saviors like Mueller to do the necessary political work excuses Congress and the citizenry from doing their jobs. Mueller pretty much did what he had to do. If there is anything the Age of Trump should teach us, it is not to take politics for granted. Both the Mueller probe and the Ukraine scandal remind us that the primary responsibility for coping with Trump lies with Congress and the voters.