At the bottom of the White House’s huffy complaints about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, there is a lonely kernel of truth. President Trump’s lawyers apparently hoped Mueller would blink in the face of the dilemma that the Justice Department’s prohibition against indicting a sitting president presented him. Trump plainly broke the law, but the rules under which Mueller served require him only to explain his decisions about whom to prosecute. A different special counsel might have simply noted that he declined to prosecute Trump, or that he would have prosecuted Trump but for the policy forbidding it, either of which would have made it fairly straightforward for Attorney General William Barr to conceal the nature and extent of Trump’s wrongdoing.
Instead, as White House lawyer Emmet Flood wrote in response to the report, Mueller produced something more like a “’truth commission’ report,” detailing in narrative form the extraordinary volume of evidence showing that Trump obstructed justice. Mueller didn’t break any rule by doing this, but he didn’t have to do it either. He apparently understood that nature of the investigation, the president’s immunity from prosecution, and the weight congressional leaders had placed upon him obligated him to say a great deal more than he would have in any other prosecutorial role.
His report has been aptly described as an impeachment referral, but inaptly described as a roadmap to impeachment. It would be much more accurate to describe it as a short cut to impeachment. The very “truth commission”-like nature of the report makes the notion of Congress using it as a roadmap redundant. Mueller did the investigative leg-work for Congress, and even if Congress never sees another word of his report and never hears him testify, Congress will have to decide whether it will act on the impeachable conduct Mueller has already detailed, or not.
The evasive way House Democrats have responded to the report so far has done Mueller a real disservice. Their irresolution has allowed Republicans to drown the public in unanswered lies about what Mueller found and what the response to it should be. We are now likelier to witness months of full-throttled counter-investigations—of Mueller himself, and everybody who played a hand in the Russia probe—than we are to get the impeachment inquiry Mueller all but declared we need.
Their dithering about the Mueller report is sadly typical of the party’s general paralysis in the face of the most corrupt and dishonest administration in the country’s history, and it carries a sobering lesson for all those who might themselves in Trump’s crosshairs: Democrats won’t come to your rescue unless you make them.
The party leadership’s desperation to avoid a confrontation with Trump has been comically unsubtle. When Mueller finished his work, House Majority Whip James Clyburn immediately described the Russia investigation as a “closed” chapter, and called on Democrats to turn their attention to “everyday issues.”
Their certainty that holding Trump accountable will backfire politically stems from a combination of bad history and poor reasoning. Because Democratic candidates campaigned successfully in 2018 on protecting people’s health care, Democrats have convinced themselves that it is Trump’s only vulnerability. But if health care and other kitchen-table issues were the script of the midterms, the score was more abstract: the realization that the Trump presidency is an emergency and that building a check on his power was a matter of historic importance.
Democrats thwarted the GOP’s legislative agenda simply by winning but the Democratic health care agenda can’t advance either so long Republicans continue to control the Senate and White House. Trump has predictably abused his inherent powers to work around the divided government, and Democrats can’t protect people from him by avoiding confrontation. All they can do is demobilize their supporters by communicating that they don’t actually believe Trump is much of an emergency after all.
Trump now has the loyalist attorney general he’s wanted all along. Barr sits in charge of over a dozen criminal investigations Mueller spun off to other prosecutors, and has placed the Department of Justice squarely behind the view that Trump can end or throttle those investigations if he claims to believe they’re bogus. The victims of the crimes under investigation, which include the voters Trump defrauded in 2016, have only one backstop offering them any hope that justice will be served, and it is House Democrats, who are determined not to impeach the president under almost any circumstances. Trump has also enlisted Barr to gin up criminal investigations of Democratic presidential candidates, and Justice Department officials who oversaw the Russia investigation in its early days. They, too, have only one source of hope that the federal law enforcement apparatus won’t ruin their lives to boost Trump’s political prospects, or help him seek revenge, and it is House Democrats, who are determined not to impeach the president under almost any circumstances.
Democrats have cloaked their reluctance in the high-minded language of consensus—a supposed objection to voting for impeachment on a partisan basis—even though it is plainly political. They fear that if they do the right thing, they will not do as well in the 2020 elections as they will if they do the wrong thing. This fear is highly speculative, and thus irrelevant. We can’t know if an impeachment inquiry would help or hurt Democrats next year, but we do know that the wrong thing causes real harm to people right now. Politicians should pay political penalties for hanging supporters out to dry like this—without the threat of penalty, Democrats will proceed under the impression that abdicating their obligations is costless. We should all demand that they stand and be counted while it’s still an option, and should interpret failure to do so as a profound, collective failure of character. If they can’t be forced to help Joe Biden, they can’t be counted on to help the rest of us.