By Adam Cohen
It was the ultimate made-for-TV moment.
The redoubtable Robert Mueller – decorated war hero; unrelentingly scrupulous public servant; impeccable in appearance, reputation and resume – testified before Congress about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, the involvement of President Trump’s campaign with those efforts, and whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice to prevent Mueller from finding the truth.
The American people would finally hear what happened during the 2016 election in the Special Counsel’s own words. And Mueller did not fail to deliver.
Well, at least according to the transcript.
In exchanges with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Ted Lieu, Mueller outlined the three requirements necessary to prove obstruction of justice and, through the facts elicited by his investigation, explained how Trump’s conduct met all three. Since Mueller, the consummate rule follower, was forbidden by Department of Justice regulations from determining whether Trump had actually committed a crime, he refused to fully acknowledge Trump’s transgressions. But the words of his report eloquently told the tale of corruption that Mueller himself could not.
The testimony Mueller gave in response to questioning by Congressman Adam Schiff cemented Trump as a rapacious opportunist who would eagerly lie to his countrymen and compromise the defenses of his country for his own pecuniary gain.
And although Mueller was unable to conclude whether Trump’s actions in connection with Russia were or were not criminal, he agreed with Schiff that they were unpatriotic, unethical, and beneath the standard that must be followed by any public official, much less the President of the United States.
These are the cold, hard truths that were laid out in Mueller’s Congressional testimony. One would think that such testimony would anger every public servant so much that they would engage in fistfights with one another to decide who would be first to impeach such a scurrilous confidence man. After Mueller’s testimony, the “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra should have been dead.
But this is the age of the reality television president, and we have all learned that it isn’t necessarily veracity which wins the day. Now we must contend with “alternative facts” where “truth isn’t truth.” These days we are sometimes governed, both literally and figuratively, by perception.
And while Mueller did present these damning, naked facts, he also revealed a highly flawed visual perception. He asked for questions to be repeated. He fumbled with his own report. He gave the impression at times that he was unfamiliar with some of the details of what he himself had written.
And that gave the GOP their opening.
Trump exulted that it represented a “great day” for him, stating that Mueller performed “very poorly” and that he “folded,” all the while excoriating the press with his bombastic “fake news” euphemism. He even went so far as to call the entire saga “high treason.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy charged the Democrats with having “wasted time.” Republican Congressman Mark Meadows even seemed to question whether Mueller had decreased mental acuity, while Jim Jordan attacked the partiality of the investigation.
The Republicans, the self-proclaimed party of law and order, were attacking a lifelong public servant, a highly respected prosecutor, a man they uniformly lauded as an excellent choice to be Special Counsel, a redoubtable former FBI director who dedicated his entire career to protecting America – and a Republican to boot – as an incompetent, partisan buffoon. They continued to show they would support this President regardless of how much he lies or drags good men through the mud while opening the doors of this country so that the Vladimir Putins of the world can exploit us.
It’s much easier to perpetrate the con when you have willing enablers.
But this deceit goes far beyond the possibility of traitorous behavior. Trump’s actions challenge the foundations of American democracy. If a president may declare a national emergency any time he wants, and take whatever funds he wants, to address any issue he wants, and the Supreme Court will support him (completely along party lines, of course) why do we need Congress? If he can ignore subpoenas, refuse to produce requested information and successfully make specious claims of executive privilege, what is the point of legislative oversight? If he can change long-standing policy, rooted in both statute and caselaw, through Executive Orders or unvetted regulations, why do we need to pass laws? And if he cannot be arrested, much less tried or convicted, why bother investigating his conduct?
Can the three branches of American government survive such a corrupt executive? Especially when he is fully supported by a party which controls the Senate and allows him to appoint more judges of questionable competence with the expectation that they will rule in his favor? Will Republicans continue to ignore his refusal to protect America along with his flagrant abuses of the rule of law?
Will not one Republican stand up for his country?
All this puts Democrats in a very unenviable position. The proper thing to do is impeach Trump. He has committed multiple crimes and taken many actions adverse to America’s interests. But while the Senate is controlled by sycophantic Republicans, impeachment is rendered essentially meaningless: the GOP will not vote to convict him. Regrettably, therefore, impeachment is not in the best interests of this country. Because once the partisan Senate finds Trump “not guilty,” he will proclaim victory while simultaneously arguing that the result vindicates his “no collusion, no obstruction” stance and that the “deep state” had been persecuting him throughout his entire presidency. He would also undoubtedly accuse the Democrats of being traitors and anti-American, and would do so with the imprimatur of an “official” finding by the legislature that he was “innocent.” And the people who are NOT living and dying with the Russia investigation, who have NOT spent the last two years anxiously watching Mueller’s every move, might very well accept this determination as definitive, holding it against the Democratic candidate in the 2020 election and re-electing him, which would likely make matters infinitely worse.
That’s how tribal America has become. That’s how perception could defeat reality. That’s how America might ignore the findings made by Robert Mueller for the self-serving soundbites of President Trump. That’s why decades of probity by Robert Mueller, and the full weight of his report, might never matter.
That’s how Trump could continue to bamboozle America into supporting him.
There is, of course, one iron clad way for U.S. citizens to rid America of this menace.
But they can’t limit themselves to the presidential ballot. No, cleansing the United States means flushing out every yes-man, every quisling, every self-dealing, self-serving, spineless member of Congress who refuses to do his constitutional duty and hold this president to account. Worse, the rot in the GOP seems to have corrupted its entire ecosystem, with Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans approaching 90%, and Republican based state legislatures enacting ever more draconian statutes, or refusing to act, on issues such as the right to choose, voting rights and preventing gun violence. It has become astonishingly clear that if Democrats truly want to enact meaningful change, they must elect candidates at ALL levels of government.
This is not a quick fix. It might take several election cycles. But with the results in 2018, we have already begun to see positive changes taking place in the form of progressive legislation being passed in the house and an ever-stronger push to fully investigate the Trump administration, with the promise of more to come. Naturally, Democrats will have to overcome the massive roadblocks already erected by the Trump machine. But I, for one, have faith in them. More importantly, I have faith in the American people. I believe they will reject the lawlessness and lies of this administration. I believe they will see what Trump has done and will resoundingly defeat his brand of politics. I believe they will choose morality and honesty rather than deceit and fear.
I am betting that the truth will not fall prey to the confidence man.