Robert Mueller Will Not Save Democrats

Many Democrats believe the FBI’s investigation is the best way to oust Trump. They’re wrong.

By Sean Culleton

Photo: Tom Williams / Contributor/Getty Images

In a time when the president comports himself like an obnoxious buffoon, the calm, methodical relentlessness of Robert Swan Mueller III offers a measure of comfort to Democrats. For many on the left, the past few years have marked the beginning of a political nightmare. We’ve witnessed the dawning of an age when neither a sex scandal nor a financial scandal — any scandal at all, really — is enough to bring down a president. Gone are the days when a blow job or a porn star could upset the ambitions of the leading men of the power class. One wonders what Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner must be thinking.

Something has changed among the American populace. It is hard to fathom, especially now that the Democrats have embraced the #MeToo movement and completed the first round of purges across Hollywood and national media outlets. Donald Trump embodies all that the #MeToo movement abhors. He is the quintessential slimy executive who treats women terribly but always gets away with it. Even after 16 women accused him of various levels of sexual misconduct, even after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, even after a porn star accused him of cheating on his wife just months after the birth of their child, Trump is still president.

This is where Mueller and his team come in. They are superheroes sent in to save the day and return order to the world. They are the forces of justice—literally. And boy, are they fun to cheer for! Every time Mueller drops a new bit of information into the public sphere and the White House is forced to scramble, it feels like the hand of God delivering mayhem to Sodom and Gomorrah. The Democrats immediately dig into the details, combing for clues that might reveal Mueller’s strategy. Inevitably, a few Democrats conclude that the fallout will be so scandalous that not even Trump can avoid the repercussions. This time, they insist, things are finally coming to a head. With glee and bated breath, Democrats pour themselves a stiff one and settle in front of the TV every #MuellerFriday night to watch the orange menace finally fall from power.

But, of course, the investigation will take years. Every week the Democratic cheerleaders are left to wait and see what develops. The cycle of suspense repeats itself, and Mueller’s team drops yet another bombshell that is still not quite enough to oust Trump. Mueller is definitely making progress, and with federal prosecutors stating that Trump authorized Michael Cohen to make payments to Stormy Daniels—a move that broke campaign finance law—it looks like the investigation is finally arriving at its inexorable… what? Certainly not a conclusion, per se; like every Special Counsel before it, Mueller’s investigation will go on for years unless it is otherwise shut down. But perhaps this is at least a turning point, a climactic moment in which Democrats can finally say, “See, I told you so.”

Dems should keep one thing in mind while they break out the popcorn: the way Trump is removed from office matters.

The weekly reading of the tea leaves is now so ingrained in the fabric of American life under Trump that the sessions are announced ahead of time to let us clear our schedules. The Mueller dumps — part soap opera, part sporting event, part crime thriller — have become one of the greatest entertainment events of the decade. Last week, USA Today announced: “Buckle up. It’s going to be a newsy Friday. The end of the week is typically used by officials and agencies as a dumping ground for major news, but today is shaping up to be big. Really big.”

The major media outlets are making big money from it, too. MSNBC has enjoyed surging ratings since Trump was elected in 2016, and viewers routinely tune into Rachel Maddow’s prime time show for astute insights into the latest Mueller developments. In July 2018, Maddow defeated CNN for the 62nd consecutive month in total viewers, and for the 18th consecutive month among adults 25 to 54. By August, her Tuesday audience had continued to grow, and the month saw her second highest rated broadcast ever. These ratings are the most coveted in the industry, and they bring in staggering revenue for MSNBC.

Of course, Maddow is not the only one breaking down Mueller developments and creating elaborate theories about legal maneuverings. A large cottage industry of blogs and Twitter pundits traces every obscure legal implication to its least obvious conclusion. Lawyers like Shockratees and Preet Bharara; pundits like Malcolm Nance, Susan Hennessey, and Louise Mensch; and shadowy outsiders like hacktivist Jester Actual have become go-to soothsayers hunting for the best connect-the-dots, didn’t-think-of-that-did-ya? moment of any given #MuellerFriday news cycle. Shockratees was one of the first to point out that by including facts crucial to the case against the president in the Cohen and Manafort proceedings, Mueller could essentially put the President on trial without directly doing so. In order to prevent this, Trump would have to forgo executive protection from involvement in the Cohen trial. And by putting his report on Cohen in the public domain, Mueller ensured that the case against the president can be made even if Trump tried to fire him.

Fun as it is to cheer for the Mueller justice squad, Dems should keep one thing in mind while they break out the popcorn: the way Trump is removed from office matters. Many Democrats want Trump to be deposed by any means necessary. Some feel that the more humiliating the circumstances are for Trump and his supporters, the better. This is an understandable, if harsh, sentiment given the level of contempt Trump has engendered. But humiliation is not good politics, and shaming the right arguably led to Trump’s victory in 2016.

Trump’s followers are unlikely to feel shame if he is taken down for sexual misconduct, campaign finance fraud, or even perjury, but they might be abashed if Mueller is able to demonstrate that Trump colluded with Russia. On the other hand, the Republicans already demonstrated their lack of interest in any possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia when they shut down the investigation by the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year.

Mueller’s investigation represents the easy way out of the mess that Democrats have found themselves in since 2016. The presidential election revealed a deep disconnect between the Democratic platform and the needs of the American people. Mueller, with his superhero cape and tight spandex outfit, cannot fix that. At best, he can cut one head off the hydra. But Vice President Mike Pence is just as bad as—and in many ways worse than—Trump when it comes to achieving Democratic policy goals.

There are potentially dire consequences for the country if Mueller successfully deposes the President. As Sarah Kendzior, another popular Twitter pundit, explains, “The GOP will likely pursue the path of one-party rule even if Trump is removed.” Over the past two years, Kendzior has been raising the alarm about the very real authoritarian tendencies of Trump and his movement. As she points out, there is no reason to believe the GOP would reverse course if Trump were no longer in power.

The risk is not that Mueller will fail to take Trump down; the risk is that if he does, the American people will lose the chance to save face.

Betting markets tend to have similarly negative outlooks on a possible Trump impeachment. As some analysts point out, “Millions of Trump voters would see this as a move by Democrats to nullify the 2016 election they lost and it could also tear the Republican Party apart.” The political turmoil would likely affect the financial markets negatively when we already have several important indicators of an imminent recession, such as the prospect of an inverted treasury bond yield curve.

The best way to get rid of Trump is to vote him out of office in 2020. With the election now less than two years away, the Democrats have an opportunity to marshal the will of the people to their cause. Deposing Trump via a process that represents the will of the people would be a stunning and resounding rebuke. The humiliation of such a loss would trump (sorry) anything Mueller could possibly deliver and would go further toward healing the Democratic Party than an impeachment ever could. Ideally, Mueller would spend the next year and a half continuing to clear out the sleazy operatives that have lurked beneath the Republican Party apparatus for so long, and the voters themselves would remove Trump.

If Trump goes down before 2020 as the result of a bureaucratic process within the Justice Department, the question of whether the American people would have voted for Trump a second time will remain unanswered. The reputation of the American citizenry will remain tarnished. The thesis that Americans are no better than the rest of the world when dealing with the threat of a charismatic authoritarian will remain unchallenged. The stakes of the Mueller investigation are high, but perhaps not in the way we imagine. The risk is not that Mueller will fail to take Trump down; the risk is that if he does, the American people will lose the chance to save face.

It is time for Democrats to stop watching the news and start taking action. In less than two years, the left has a chance to make history and correct the terrible wrong that was 2016. But first, they need a message for the people. The Democratic Party leadership demonstrated the viability of a message based on jobs and equal opportunity in the economy during the 2018 midterms, but large swaths of the country that voted for Trump in 2016 still went red. The Democrats need to work out a way to bring the people into their tent. If they cannot, we should not pretend Mueller can save them.

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