After nearly two years of investigations that spawned dozens of indictments and convictions of a significant number of Donald Trump’s close associates and colleagues, the special counsel’s inquiry into the 2016 election has come to a close. While the grand jury that Robert Mueller convened is continuing its work, and a number of ongoing investigations have emerged, Mueller’s final report has been delivered to the attorney general’s office as required. The new AG, William Barr, appears to have done what Trump hoped he would: spin the report’s findings as positively as possible. And now America is supposed to simply move on.
As the political battle over making Mueller’s report public plays out in the halls of Congress, another war is being fought on the left. Broadly speaking, there have been two schools of thought among liberals and leftists on the special counsel’s probe. Many felt that the investigation was a waste of time and that there was no point in placing faith in Mueller using the legal system to end the train wreck of Trump’s presidency. Additionally, this faction contended, the special counsel propagated unwarranted anti-Russian views and a new Red Scare. On the other, more centrist end of the spectrum was the idea that Trump is a Russian stooge, bought and paid for by Vladimir Putin, and that the Mueller investigation would save the nation from the treasonous figurehead.
The truth is a bit more complicated.
There is no doubt that Trump had business interests in Russia and was hoping to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. If anything is predictable about Trump, it is that he is driven by money and prestige. Trump has also made no secret of trying to impress Putin, which shouldn’t surprise us, given that he has had similar infatuations with other dictatorial figures, such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. There is also ample evidence that Russia attempted to influence the U.S. elections in 2016, resulting in Mueller’s indictments of more than a dozen Russian nationals and, as Barr summarized, the special counsel found “two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.”
If Richard Nixon represented the worst of American presidential hubris once upon a time, Trump has rewritten government’s standards for presidential behavior and redrawn the baseline of tolerance to such an extent that the checks and balances we once proudly touted are now meaningless.
Perhaps the most egregious outcome of the Mueller investigation has been Trump’s reaction to the idea of being investigated. Not only did the president, on many occasions, publicly denounce the investigation as a partisan “witch hunt,” intended to politically hurt him, he took steps to try to curtail the investigation and install friendly overseers, and made almost no attempt to hide his efforts. As recently as a few weeks ago, he derided his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel investigation, saying, “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ ” And indeed, Trump fired Sessions and replaced him with an AG he could count on: William Barr—a man who has made his allegiance to presidential authority and power quite clear. Trump’s attacks on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and his firing of FBI Director James Comey also illustrated just how badly he wanted to end the investigation.
And yet Mueller reportedly did not find good enough reason to charge the president with obstruction. The specific quote from the report that Barr chose to share publicly was that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Indeed, reports emerged that Mueller indicated weeks ago to Justice Department officials that there were to be no charges of obstruction.
In an eloquent historical framing of this failure to charge on obstruction, The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote, “Under the theory that Mr. Trump’s legal team advanced, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. work for the president and therefore a president can order investigations opened or closed, fire prosecutors, grant pardons or otherwise use his constitutional power even if it seems overtly self-interested or political.” Baker added that Mueller’s refusal to accuse the president of obstruction even when Trump brazenly threw up numerous rhetorical and political roadblocks means that a president has “almost complete leeway to thwart any effort by federal law enforcement authorities to scrutinize his actions, almost as if he were a king.”
The Mueller investigation should never have been considered the sole means by which the Trump presidency would be taken to task. Special counsel regulations are the product of government legislation aimed at exposing nefarious deeds by crooked presidents. They were never meant to address the underlying injustices and rotten political culture that have spawned the terrifyingly abusive executive branch we have today. The corrective to those injustices and that rotten culture lies in the realm of grassroots activism, concerted organizing and meaningful education to create a constructive cultural shift in our nation, so that we never again face a head of state like Trump.
Still, the Mueller investigation should have borne some fruit. If Richard Nixon represented the worst of American presidential hubris once upon a time, Trump has rewritten government’s standards for presidential behavior and redrawn the baseline of tolerance to such an extent that the checks and balances we once proudly touted are now meaningless. Perhaps there is some shred of substance in the actual report that we have yet to see. Barring that, what the Mueller debacle shows us is that our current political and legal system is incapable of ensuring that madness never rules the Oval Office.