On Beyond Mueller. Step 4: Where do we go from here?

Time-travel with me to a day when Donald Trump is gone and books about his downfall crowd the bestseller list. How will the spring of 2019 be remembered? How will chroniclers of the resistance evaluate our response to the murky end of the Mueller investigation?

Not our finest hour, they could say. After over-investing in the search for a Trump-Russia conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, we lost heart and focus when the inquiry came up short – that’s a likely line of criticism. But posterity will cut us some slack, I suspect, if it can add that we did not take long to come out of our post-Mueller funk and get back on task.

We could start by cleansing our thoughts, for now, of the criminal scenario the Special Prosecutor’s office was created to investigate. That would free up brain space to reflect on what made Trump and his Presidency abhorrent before the Russia business and the Mueller probe claimed so much of our attention. In the first place, there was the character and record of the man – his self-absorption, lying, thieving, sexual and economic predation, racism, immigrant-ism and unapologetic longing for the powers of an autocrat. Then came his decision, greatly magnifying the threat posed by Trump in his own right, to embrace the plutocratic agenda of the Republican Party and its moneyed overlords, in exchange for their agreement to back his hate-mongering, demagoguery and use of public office for self-enrichment.

That shady bargain with Republicans, not Russians, was the core conspiracy. And it rested on a foundation of corruption – plain old money corruption — that was and remains an area of tremendous vulnerability for Trump & Co., and thus of tremendous opportunity for those struggling to bring down his regime and set our country on a better path.

The opportunity is hard to grasp at present. Especially hard, it seems, for Democrats. They had hitched their wagon to the Mueller probe and the promise of evidence that would set the wheels of justice in motion and stir the conscience of Americans across the political spectrum, some Republican lawmakers included. Instead, the Republicans seem to be as united and craven as ever, while Democrats are more divided, less confident, and sliding back into politics as usual. With voter surveys indicating limited enthusiasm for a move toward impeachment, influential voices in the paarty are counseling Democratic office-holders and candidates to lay off the confrontation, put on a smiley face and stick to an upbeat, policy-centric message about health care and other “kitchen table” issues on which their side stands strong in the polls. Let’s just talk about “what we plan to do for the country,” says one of those instructors, Massachusetts Congressman (and nominal presidential candidate) Seth Moulton.

It’s a strategy that makes perfect sense as a way for centrist Democrats like Moulton to reassert control over the party and stay on the right side of their wealthy benefactors. A presidential candidate talking as they propose would stand a fair chance of winning the White House in 2020, as Hillary Clinton nearly did in 2016, after all. It’s a guaranteed loser of a message, however, if the goal is, say, economic justice or true democracy or a healthy future for our country and the planet. And it would be sure to sow more of the massive cynicism and distrust that got us into our current political fix.

I don’t claim endless powers as an oracle. My picture goes fuzzy when I try to glimpse the timing, means or final triggering events of Trump’s removal from office. But I’m getting strong signals about a decision that needs to be made in the here and now in order to get us to that result as swiftly and as decisively as possible. We – the combined forces of the opposition – should resolve to keep pounding away at the corruption and criminality at the heart of this administration.

Elected by fraud and fluke, Donald Trump has given us the crookedest presidency in our national memory, if not our history. It was rotten from the start. Two and a half years in, its rottenness is more obvious than ever. That is so, let us not forget, partly thanks to the work of the Mueller team, for in the course of not finding exactly what they were looking for they unearthed a heap of other crimes and intimations of crime. That evidentiary haul – related to Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Deutschebank, and on and on – helped the Democrats retake the House of Representatives last year. Although many voters don’t seem to greatly care, it’s part of why Trump remains so widely reviled, despite low unemployment and inflation numbers of the kind that are supposed to correlate with high presidential approval.

Yes, the Dems may be stymied in their efforts to summon the witnesses of their dreams. No, Robert Mueller may never be willing to say aloud much more than he has put down in his report. But there is plenty more for Congress – and journalists and prosecutors – to investigate; and they can proceed with confidence that more dirt will surface. Never has anyone with so much to hide commanded so much attention; that is a formula guaranteed to keep the flow of ugly information coming. By November 2020, Trump’s crimes could be his undoing if he’s still in the White House and on the ballot; those crimes could also be an impossible burden for the Republican Party to bear. It’s a wildly unpredictable situation, to be sure. But Trump himself clearly doesn’t think he’s home free, and no one else should think that, either.

So the House can and must carry on, in a no-nonsense way, with the business of oversight and investigation, and Democrats would probably do well to accept the political risk of announcing an impeachment inquiry if that’s what it takes to get hold of the right witnesses and materials and get the public to pay attention.

Every bit as important, they – their presidential candidates and others – should keep talking about corruption, not as an alternative to the airing of policy ideas but in the same breath. As in: We will make health care universal and rein in the power of the insurance companies and big pharma. Here’s our Green new Deal, and here’s our plan to check the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Corruption is what makes it chronically impossible for this Administration and Congress to deal with any of the issues that matter most to most Americans. Voters know it, and they need to hear Democrats say it. That’s the story that has to be told, loudly, convincingly and repeatedly.

It is a powerful story, and a potentially unifying one. The Democratic Party likes to call itself a big tent. There is a case to be made for letting it be a tent big enough tent to accommodate people on both sides of Medicare for All, a wealth tax, or even impeachment. But as Democrats have demonstrated through their surprisingly serious and sweeping package of clean-government reforms, HR1 (approved by the House in its first big symbolic act of 2019), they can come together – moderates and progressives, the party establishment and its activist base – on the need for strong anti-corruption measures in order to lay the foundation for a country worthy of being called a democracy and a government capable of advancing the common good. They had better.

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On Beyond Mueller. Step 1: Acknowledge the feelings

Bummed. Ticked. Perturbed. Aghast. Disgusted. Deflated. Demoralized. I have been to the thesaurus and found it packed with words that fit the occasion. After trying on a bunch, I’ve decided to go with dismayed. A bit antique but doubly apt: it signifies sudden disappointment along with diminished clarity and confidence – exactly my two top reactions to the end of the Special Prosecutor’s investigation and the findings so far conveyed to us by the Attorney General.

I don’t know about you. I had hoped for better. Not just hoped. Expected. With reasons. Let me recap a few:

  • Paul Manafort’s frantic efforts to “get whole” with one of Putin’s favorite oligarchs;
  • The polling data that Manafort passed on to an FBI-certified Russian intelligence asset;
  • The instructions from an unnamed senior Trump campaign figure to have Roger Stone reach out to Julian Assange;
  • The Republican platform going soft on Russia a week after release of the Clinton emails;
  • The reported visit of Michael Cohen’s cellphone (if not Cohen himself) to Prague, a known hub of Russian hackers;
  • The ridiculous number of ill-explained meetings and contacts between Trump people and Putin people;
  • The endless lying.

What were they working so desperately hard to hide? Nothing as tidy as a straight-up deal to trade Russia-sanctions relief for Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. I got that. But clearly there was a heap more bad stuff to unearth – another big swath of criminality if not a single foul deed. And surely the Special Prosecutor and his team, with all the witnesses they had turned and the records they had gathered, would know a lot and tell us a lot of what they knew. That was my wishful if not magical line of thinking.

I confess to (in hindsight) an unhealthy interest in Trump-probe minutiae, partly attributable to too many hours spent in the back alleys and basement corridors of the case with the three amiable co-hosts of a podcast called “Mueller She Wrote.” But as they say in Author’s Acknowledgment Land, any mistakes are my own.

A big one was the habit of filling the void of Robert Mueller’s silences with imputed powers and virtues. Presented with the bullet points of his life story, I discounted his service to the two George Bush Administrations and the rock-ribbed Republicanism that won him his assignment, and grabbed on to his reputation as a straight-shooter who loved to put bad guys behind bars. Coming from the polar opposite end of the spectrum of New York City privilege, our Special Prosecutor, I felt sure, would see Donald Trump as a blight on the moral landscape, and his presidency as a national disaster. Guided by a duty to history and not just by a narrow legal mandate, Mueller would conclude his probe with a decisive flurry of indictments and disclosures, setting the Trump crowd on its heels and supplying the Resistance with fuel and momentum for a final push to victory. That is the vision that must now be shelved.

Yes indeed, we still have the actual Mueller Report to look forward to. Even with redactions, its hundreds of pages could turn out to be damning – possibly in themselves, possibly in the leads pursued by others. And if, for the sake of argument, there was “no collusion,” that idea will still have been the crowbar that opened many boxes of dirty secrets. Mueller & Co. may turn out to have been playing a sounder long game than we can yet see – with better results than the country would have realized from a dramatic announcement propelling us into a nasty fight over impeachment.

Let us hope so. But let us take a moment, first, to summon our inner child and give voice to our pain. For that purpose, I recommend “Robert Mueller Hits the Dusty Trail,” the Colbert show’s mashup of the windup of the 1952 movie “Shane,” when, as Alan Ladd rides off toward the hills, the 10-year-old Brandon DeWilde begs him to “come back” and deal with all the unanswered questions and uncompleted investigations.

A good cry will serve us well. Then we can get to work and face the fact: there will be no savior. It’s on us.