Robert Swan Mueller III slipped into the chamber and strolled through the throng of whispering reporters toward the table and chairs at the center of the crowd. He stood for a moment before he sat down and scanned the committee panel before him. Then he clasped his hands together, sighed, and took his chair.
Here, at last, was the man on whom the Democrats had pinned all of their hopes for impeachment. For 2 years, the Democrats had enjoyed the ritual of sitting down in front of the TV, popping some popcorn, and cheering Mueller on as he dropped not-quite-impeachment-worthy bombshells on President Trump every week. Each revelation came with its expected amount of hyperbolic speculation. “Could this be the end of the Trump presidency?” “Buckle up, it’s Mueller time!” The podcast pundits and Twitterverse would swing into high gear with a variety of lawyers, hackers, and other Mueller mind readers chiming in with obscure legal implications and their latest didn’t-think-of-that-one-did-you hot take on how Mueller was running circles around Trump and his dopey goons.
Of course, after a while, these pronouncements became routine and with each passing month of unmet expectations, the Democrats became more and more desperate. The intensity of the speculation grew as the chaotic administration somehow managed to hold on through wave after wave of scandal. Much to the bewilderment of the Democrats, Trump seemed to survive sex scandals, financial scandals, and obstruction of justice charges that would have toppled previous presidents. But it was not until the Spring of 2019 when AG Barr mischaracterized the report as favorable to the president just before it was released, that the Democrats were finally done patiently waiting for Mueller to deliver justice. When the report clearly showed that the President is the corrupt villain the Democrats had known he was all along, Democrats knew the moment they had been waiting for had come at last. Trump all but obstructed justice, the report said. This was the final atom bombshell, the Watergate moment, the death blow the party had been waiting for… or at least it should have been, but that day of reckoning never came.
In the immediate aftermath of the release of the report, a furious debate over the merits of impeachment engulfed the party. Pelosi’s strategy of wait and see prevailed. After all, with the GOP controlling the Senate, impeachment was a nonstarter anyway. Therefore, instead of going for impeachment now, the Democrats would hold more hearings. They would hold off on that cathartic death blow that everyone was waiting for and build the case to the American people all over again. The hearings would hopefully get everyone riled up ahead of the 2020 elections without jeopardizing Democrats' polling numbers. The Democratic leadership would subpoena administration officials one by one, culminating in a hearing with the big tuna himself. They would use Mueller’s testimony to show, once and for all, that Trump deserved the wrath of the nation. It would be a glorious day of triumph for the die-hard fans of the Mueller justice squad.
Within the first hour, it became clear that the Democrats had put too much stock in Mueller. For many Americans, this was their first look at Mueller himself, and they were not impressed. Far from the superhero that liberals had imagined him to be, Mueller was not much more than a weary soldier who just wanted to be left alone. In contrast to the cold, clockwork nature of his investigation, Mueller himself seemed tired, hesitant, and confused at times. He replied to committee members by mumbling one-word answers or by meekly referring lawmakers back to his report. As the day progressed and it became clear that Mueller would not give the Democrats the administration-ending soundbite they so craved, many Liberals lapsed into despondency. Was this the man they had all waited to hear from for so long? Over the days following the hearing, pundits across the spectrum declared the show to be a disaster. A few feeble voices called out again for impeachment, but Pelosi again struck down the possibility. The moment had passed.
So ended the long saga of the Mueller investigation. With it goes most, if not all, of the hopes Democrats had of impeaching Donald Trump based on Mueller’s work. Some still hold out hope that continued investigations will reveal something new, something extra damaging that not even Trump’s base will be able to reckon with. But for now, the time has come for the rest of the nation to say farewell to the Mueller Investigation. Its purpose is complete, and now it is time to let Robert Mueller retire in peace.
It is appropriate at this closing hour, to look back at what lessons can be learned from the Mueller investigation. Beyond the specific events and information that the report uncovered, the Mueller investigation represents one of the most thorough portraits of an American administration and political campaign in a generation. Mueller’s work and the story of how the investigation unfolded have revealed deep problems in American democracy (and American society) in general. Here are three take-aways:
1. Scandals no longer have the power to topple presidents
Americans must come to terms with the fact that scandals no longer threaten the power of the aristocracy. Much to the bewilderment of many on the Left, the Republicans no longer seem to care about the moral purity of their politicians. The shift probably occurred as the result of a combination of several factors, including but not limited to Trump’s public lies about these accusations, the rise of fake news, news propaganda, and the general willingness of average citizens to ignore horrifying truths. But one thing is clear now the Mueller’s report is public: despite the #metoo movement, men still rule the world, and unless something changes, they will continue to rule with impunity no matter how badly they behave.
Consider for a moment how deeply scandalous the accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump are. He has been accused of sexual assault and rape by dozens of women. He has been accused of cheating on his wife with a porn star, as detailed in the Mueller report. There is even the infamous "grab em' by the p-" tape. Still, the GOP supports him. Back in the good old Clinton days, extramarital affairs and fellatio were enough to get a President impeached by the GOP. Those days are gone. Today the GOP will defend him at all costs. Evangelicals will even pray with him. The message is clear: sex scandals no longer matter, at least not to Republicans.
But sex is not the only type of scandal that no longer matters. Financial scandals are also no big deal these days, apparently. After all, the Mueller investigation uncovered multiple instances of possible financial corruption involving Russian oligarchs, Deutsche Bank, and shady characters from deep inside the slimy underbelly of the Republican political establishment. The instances of possible financial mischief are too numerous to go into here, but just consider for a moment that, due to the Special Counsel's investigation, Paul Manafort, the chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, was convicted on five counts of tax fraud and two counts of bank fraud. Trump himself has refused to release his tax returns.
As for criminal scandals, the waters are little murky. Clearly, given the evidence in Mueller’s report, Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice. Of course, in a sane world, rape charges would be a no brainer. Charges of financial crimes would also be part of the mix, as noted above. But whether violence is still acceptable remains to be seen. Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on the street and get away with it is not easy to dismiss given the current state of politics.
2. Impeachment must be reformed
The impeachment process is not powerful enough to provide the political check on the president that it was intended to provide. The purpose of the impeachment process is to provide the legislature with a way of removing a president when certain criteria are met, but the current failure of Congress to impeach Trump reveals the limits of the system when faced with the threat of a charismatic authoritarian. Several aspects of the impeachment process must be reformed.
The main problem seems to stem from the speed of the political cycles that lead to impeachment. Given the examples of Clinton and Nixon, who were both impeached (or would have been, in Nixon’s case) in their second terms, that Trump has so far avoided impeachment during his first term solidifies this as a pattern. The crucial factor is that, due to the high level of polarization in American politics, a party must control both the House and the Senate in order to impeach a president. For instance, right now, the Democrats cannot successfully impeach Trump because the GOP controls the Senate. This was not the case during the Nixon years when Republicans reluctantly moved to impeach Nixon after being presented with incontrovertible proof that Nixon committed crimes. But such collaboration between the parties is no longer imaginable, which mean that full control of the House and Senate by one party is now necessary for impeachment to be viable. That is a much stricter standard for impeachment than previous generations of Americans have faced. Add to this the oscillations in political party dominance between presidential and midterm elections and you can start to see why impeachment is so weak a check on the President. Following a presidential loss, it often takes at least one full presidential term for the opposition to recover and muster the strength needed to gain control of congress. The opposition party often does not have the political will power to control both the Senate and the House until a President’s second term. Thus, a criminal is all but guaranteed at least one term as president if they can finagle their way into the oval office.
3. Foreign powers do influence our democracy
Russia is influencing our elections and our democracy as we speak. Mueller said as much during his testimony, and the American intelligence community agrees. Russians are working to influence the 2020 elections just as they influenced the 2016 elections. The threat of foreign influence on our elections represents the single greatest threat to American Democracy we face today. Though it is nearly impossible to quantify the impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, the notion that Russia is running these shadow campaigns is indisputable.
Given that impeachment is unlikely to remove Trump from office even if the Democrats in the House do pursue it, the party’s next best chance to remove Trump from power is by winning the 2020 election. Therefore, it is imperative that the integrity of the election system be preserved, and that means protecting more than just the security of the voting machines and campaign finance regulations. Preserving the integrity of the elections also means protecting voters from misinformation. After all, it does not matter who is running for President if the voters can be manipulated into voting for one candidate by tweaking the information they see online.
So what’s next?
Now that the Mueller investigation is over, Democrats have a lot of work to do. The first thing they must do is commit to running the tightest, most impressive political campaign in history in 2020. The odds are currently stacked against them, after all. Despite early polling data that shows Democrats beating Trump in a range of primary states, Democrats will be running against an incumbent president who is facing no real primary challenger. No president who was elected to a first term has ever failed to win a second term without facing a strong primary challenger. Also, Trump never really stopped campaigning after his first win in 2016. He simply continued to hold rallies and sell merch after taking office. As excited as Democrats are about their candidates for 2020, Trump supporters are still just as rabidly devoted to Trump as they were 3 years ago. On top of this, even while Trump is polling at historic lows, the economy is good, and if there is one metric by which all presidents are judged, it is the economy.
Democrats can take some solace that, should they lose the 2020 election, the 2022 Senate elections will offer the party a chance to topple Mitch McConnell and win enough seats to make impeachment a viable path forward. Of course, by then the Mueller investigation will be ancient history. The Democrats will have to try for impeachment without the momentum of a recent Special Counsel to drive the proceedings.
For now, the best course of action for Democrats is to make their peace with Robert Mueller, put impeachment on the backburner, and start getting organized for 2020. Mueller may not have given the Democrats what they needed to take Trump down in the face of GOP controlled Senate, but he has done a great job of clearing out some of the shadiest operatives from the Republican party. Now the American people have a chance to correct the damage done by the 2016 elections. 2020 represents America’s best chance to save face and to show that our democracy can respond effectively to the threat of a charismatic authoritarian. Mueller showed us that the Justice Department will not save the people. Instead, the people must save the people.