On Beyond Mueller. Step 3: Appreciate what we’ve got

The Special Prosecutor’s work is done, and we have not seen any of these developments:

  • Charges filed against Donald Trump or a member of his family
  • Official finding of a Trump-Russia conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 elections
  • Official finding of obstruction of justice
  • Bipartisan outrage in Congress
  • Drive toward presidential impeachment or removal by other means

It is easy to dwell on what might have been. It is harder, in the moment, to appreciate the good results of this investigation.

Good result No. 1: It happened. It was real. Dodging many bullets, Mueller and his team kept at it for nearly two years. In that time, as David Cole points out in The New York Review of Books, they produced more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and 280 orders for electronic evidence; interviewed roughly 500 witnesses; had 80 people testify before grand juries; and secured indictments, convictions or guilty pleas from 34 individuals and three businesses.

They learned a lot, and they told us a lot. They might not have. Failing to find evidence of a chargeable conspiracy with Russia, Mueller could have gone with the Trump/Barr/Republican theory of the case, in which the absence of a clearly identified “underlying crime” renders all else moot. Under that reading of his mandate, the Special Prosecutor’s office could have handed us a short statement of legal findings. Instead, we got a 448-page report documenting, among other things, two large-scale Russian plots to mess with an American election; many unsavory and/or ill-explained dealings between Trumpland and Putinland; a tacit if not explicit agreement by the two camps to help each other out; many new disclosures or inklings of criminality on the part of Trump entities and associates; and a litany of presidential efforts to halt or impede the search for wrongdoing. (See my handy guide to what’s new or confirmed and important in the Mueller report.)

In the end, Mueller declined to offer a conclusion on the matter of obstruction. Into that interpretive void leaped a gleeful Attorney General William Barr with his summary judgment of no collusion, no nothing, case closed. Meanwhile, Barr contrived to keep the facts from speaking for themselves until his cover story had had a chance to sink in.

The country would surely be better off if Mueller, after a long recitation of obstructive acts, had plainly described them as indictable but for the Justice Department’s policy against indicting Presidents. The report makes that point clear to anyone not predetermined to reject it, however, and the legal niceties cited by Mueller to explain his reticence flow out of a general posture of extreme caution that, however maddening to a nonlawyer (and to some lawyers), was probably crucial to his ability to hang in there as long as he did without being fired or squelched – another achievement we can be thankful for.

The what-ifs abound. Imagine everything in the Mueller report coming to us as fresh news in one mighty convulsion, without all the advance tremors. Could Trump & Co. have kept their congressional apologists in line? Would anyone outside the inner gang be buying their cries to move on – or to investigate the investigators?

Maybe not, but the mini-revelations took their own toll on the Administration. Pollsters have noted a peculiar and persistent fact about President Trump’s approval ratings: they go down just about whenever public attention focuses on the words and deeds of Donald Trump and his henchmen. In the months leading up to the 2018 elections, Americans heard much about Paul Manafort’s $10,000 ostrich coat, Roger Stone’s self-advertised role as a pipeline to Wikileaks, and Michael Cohen’s plea deal implicating the President as a co-conspirator. That kind of media coverage probably helps explain why “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” ranked just 1 percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern, according to a pre-election poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal.

Without all the early glimpses of Mueller findings, who can say if the Democrats would have retaken the House of Representatives last year. The counter-factuals are easy to conjure up, but hard to play out.

Clouds of uncertainty still hang over any attempt at a Mueller post-mortem. One of the biggest and murkiest clouds involves 12 as-yet-unrevealed criminal inquiries that Mueller’s office handed off to other law enforcement bodies. Are those bodies working those cases? Will anything come of them? When? What if any steps did Mueller’s people take to prevent the Administration from scuttling them or keeping them under wraps until the country has stopped caring?

A full and final assessment of the Special Prosecutor’s service to the country will depend on answers to such questions. His service is already, unquestionably, large.

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