Spare a thought for Robert Mueller. He wrapped up an exhaustive investigation within two years of being asked to do so — easily beating his predecessors. Moreover, he stuck resolutely to his brief. Unlike Kenneth Starr, who expanded his probe into the Clintons’ failed real estate deal in Arkansas to include sex in the White House with an intern, Mr Mueller avoided fishing expeditions. He ran an operation with zero leaks. By any measure he embodied integrity and diligence in a town sorely deficient in both. Yet he managed to disappoint both wings of US politics.
Donald Trump repeatedly accused him of conducting a corrupt “witch hunt” for partisan motives. Mr Trump will presumably now switch to lauding Mr Mueller for his impartiality.
Liberals, on the other hand, are like a child who has discovered Santa Claus does not exist. Enormous faith was invested in Mr Mueller’s report as a magic bullet to solve the Trump problem. By the same token, an outsized role was conferred on Vladimir Putin as the evil genius who robbed Hillary Clinton of the presidency. There were large dollops of evidence supporting both views.
Mr Mueller is indeed “America’s straightest arrow”. The fact that he could not prove conspiracy with Russia does not mean it did not exist. Courtesy of the special counsel, there is more than enough prima facie evidence to pursue many investigations into the Trump Organization’s business dealings. Likewise, Mr Mueller proved the Russians interfered in the 2016 election — as they have tried to do in other democracies. That threat still exists. Mr Trump publicly requested Russia’s help and Russia obliged. It could happen again. Washington has done almost nothing to strengthen its electoral infrastructure since 2016.
Yet Democrats are now saddled with two big problems. The first will be the backlash. Never mind that Mr Mueller’s report did not “exonerate” Mr Trump. That word will now go viral. It is likely the full Mueller report will contain damaging revelations about Mr Trump’s misconduct. So far we only have the word of William Barr, the attorney-general, who was appointed by Mr Trump with his own security in mind. But no amount of circumstantial evidence will overshadow the report’s key finding. It was said that Mr Mueller’s appointment was the worst day in Mr Trump’s presidency. Mr Mueller’s report is arguably the best. Mr Trump will believe he now has full licence to escalate his attacks on the “fake news media”. In light of Mr Mueller’s conclusions, Mr Trump might be making fewer complaints about the “deep state”, however.
The second problem for Democrats is understanding what was behind Mr Trump’s victory so they can stop it from happening again. The reasons are as complex as faith in a Mueller “hail Mary pass” was simple. They include the woodenness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the FBI’s decision to reopen her email investigation 11 days before the election, disgust with run-of-the-mill politics, middle America’s economic gloom and Mr Trump’s appeals to the so-called “deplorables”. They also include help from Russia.
Even without the Kremlin, the question remains how Mr Trump could have come so close to taking the White House. Democrats will now be tempted to redouble their investigations. Indeed, the Trump administration is riddled with conflicts of interest and it is the job of Congress to hold him to account. Moreover, Mr Barr’s take on Mr Mueller’s findings cannot be taken at face value: Mr Trump attempted to obstruct justice in full public view. Democrats are therefore right to demand publication of the report.
But they would be wise to graduate from what conservatives call “Trump derangement syndrome”. There is a dose of truth in that critique too. If Mr Trump is true to form, he will now stoke “TDS” as much as he can. It will help his re-election campaign.
The question Democrats must answer is whether they can hold the Trump administration to account without being swallowed by their personal revulsion for the president. They must also brace for a sustained backlash. Mr Trump has been chafing at the investigation since he took office. As the saying goes, when you strike at the king make sure to kill him. A wounded, vindicated, Mr Trump is not a prospect to relish.
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