President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office (The United States Department of Justice)

The investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election has felt part and parcel of the two-year Trump era itself. Since the firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, it has been “Mueller time” about as long as it has been MAGA time, a parallel dimension in which Trump’s opponents could nurture their hopes that a legal deus ex machina would restore the natural order of things. This seemed all but inevitable, given the meticulousness of the probe and the rectitude of its leader, a man who would also “roll up,” in the style of Mafia prosecutions, underlings willing to rat on their don. The indictments started coming, followed by the plea bargains and criminal convictions of multiple Trump associates. And with all that other suspicious activity still to look into, surely much more would emerge, and then the president himself would be forced to go.

This was never the way to view the special prosecutor’s job. No one should have expected Mueller’s investigation to magically undo the results of the 2016 election. From all indications, he conducted a thorough, fair investigation that hewed to the terms of his mandate: to uncover whatever evidence there might be that Americans had conspired with a foreign power to sway the outcome of an election. He did not find it. The “witch hunt,” it turns out, has probably been helpful to the president, even though he continues to grouse about the probe’s legitimacy. Perversely, Mueller’s main finding seemed to come as a disappointment to the president’s most vocal opponents, especially among some quarters of the media—almost as if proof that Trump and his people worked actively with a foreign power to steal the election would have been good news. What still seems possible is that, ahead of an election that almost everyone, including Trump, expected him to lose, members of his campaign were laying the groundwork to cash in after his defeat. Unseemly, yes, maybe even obscene, but not a conspiracy. It is worth noting that Mueller and his team were able to complete their work without interference from the administration, despite the president’s periodic threats to shut the investigation down. Also worth noting is that the probe exposed the true extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election in hopes of getting Trump elected, issuing dozens of indictments against the individuals and entities involved. It is just over a year until the next election, and the success of the Russian effort to meddle in the last one has yet to be sufficiently reckoned with.

Getting rid of Trump is imperative. But the repudiation will be far more resounding if achieved at the ballot box.

The Mueller investigation did not conclusively settle the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. In his four-page summary of the findings issued on March 24, Attorney General William Barr noted that Mueller’s report neither accuses nor exonerates Trump of obstruction. Congressional Democrats are demanding to see the full report so that they can look into the issue more deeply. Barr himself, however, has argued that there can be no obstruction when there is no proof of an underlying crime. This is sure to make for a political and legal battle lasting through the 2020 election, but Democrats should press their demand, just as they should pursue the various other lines of investigation they have already begun—from possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause to campaign-finance violations, fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. And lest Trump, his family, and his associates think they are out of the woods, it’s worth noting that Mueller spun off a number of investigations to the Southern District Court of New York, while New York State’s attorney general is launching her own inquiry into possible corruption.

Yet by now Trump’s venality is largely taken for granted as just another one of his personal shortcomings; everyone seems to have gotten used to it. There are limits to what can be gained simply by harping on how bad a guy he is. Getting him out of office in 2020 means highlighting how his policies hurt many of the people who voted for him. These include a tax bill designed to benefit corporations and the wealthy, and tariffs that have further undermined sectors the working class once depended on for jobs. Farmers in the Midwest, already struggling, are increasingly concerned about climate change, more so following extreme weather events and catastrophic flooding in March. There has been no action on the plague of opioid addiction, and the administration continues its spiteful attack on the Affordable Care Act. Democrats took the 2018 midterms by smartly emphasizing the so-called kitchen-table issues; many of the 2020 presidential hopefuls are doing the same. The hysteria surrounding the Mueller investigation consumed time and energy that could otherwise have been spent pressing this case. Getting rid of Trump is imperative. But the repudiation will be far more resounding if achieved at the ballot box.

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Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: View Contents
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