For some, this was meant to be Donald Trump’s Götterdämmerung. Through nearly two years of meticulously secretive investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller was defined in the public consciousness as the US president’s ultimate nemesis. Partisans for Trump accused the 74-year-old former FBI chief of spearheading a witch hunt; liberals, who yearned for the president’s hubris to rebound on him, revered him as a potential saviour. A cadre of true believers became convinced that Trump would be dragged from the White House, any day now, in handcuffs.
On 22 March, Mueller announced that his investigation was complete and that his final report on Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election had been delivered to US attorney general William Barr. After 48 hours of deliberation, Barr delivered a short letter to Congress describing the report on the afternoon of 24 March. For Trump’s opponents, its contents were immediately disheartening. On the subject of Russian collusion, Barr wrote that “the Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.”
On the question of possible obstruction of justice, Barr said that Mueller “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction” and had left it up to the Department of Justice to decide – and that he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, “concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Barr emphasised that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” – but that wasn’t how Trump and his entourage received the message. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it a “total and complete exoneration” of the president. Soon after, Trump tweeted smugly from Air Force One: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” The atmosphere among Trump’s opponents veered toward despair.
But though the Mueller investigation did not provide the cathartic moment that many hoped for, its consequences have been profound: Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign, has been imprisoned for fraud, as have the president’s former attorney Michael Cohen, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and former campaign aide Rick Gates. Roger Stone, a long-time Trump confidant, is currently standing trial for witness tampering and obstruction.
In normal times, all of this would be sufficient to destroy an incumbent president. That Russia manipulated the 2016 election – once something Trump’s mouthpieces angrily contested – is now incontrovertible. Mueller’s report has prompted other investigations, such as that alluded to by Michael Cohen in his Congressional testimony earlier this month, some of which we know tantalisingly little about.
It is also important to note how much we still don’t know about the contents of Mueller’s report. None of the text has been made public. Barr, remember, is not a disinterested party – the attorney general is a Trump appointee. His letter didn’t even indicate the report’s length, let alone the portrait of the president it paints. It might be weeks, or even months, before it is publicly released – if it is released at all. In his letter, Barr said “my goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies” – providing him with ample flexibility on the timeline – and he added that the Department of Justice first had to laboriously remove anything that could not be made public.
Partial release will lead to a proliferation of court battles as Democrats fight line-by-line for the report’s publication. Despite loud demands for its release – opinion polls show 81 per cent of Americans believe it should be released in full – it is far from unthinkable that the Trump administration might seek to suppress it. Attention would then turn to Congress, where House of Representatives committees – under Democratic control since last year’s midterm elections – could issue subpoenas for Barr, or even Mueller himself, to testify.
Those who hoped that Mueller would deliver a climactic coup de grace have not been paying attention: that was never the likely outcome. As David Corn writes in Mother Jones, obsessive focus on unlikely active collusion, “as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee”, diverted attention from the simpler truth that Trump and his campaign visibly “interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin” – but out of mere stupidity and greed. Trump is a relentless narcissist and a reckless appeaser of Russia. But a secret agent? Probably not.
In other words, perhaps the real Special Counsel investigation was inside us all along. Trump’s mendacity was already clear – we didn’t need Mueller’s confirmation. Most of the administration’s worst deeds have happened before our eyes. But we longed for all debate to cease — to see the horrific realisation on Trump’s face as political gravity finally asserted itself. We wanted a moment of reckoning.
But changing minds across a nation as vast and complex as the US is a game of inches, not miles: trench warfare, not Blitzkrieg. If the disease of Trumpism is, eventually, to be scoured from the face of American political life, it won’t happen suddenly at the hands of a saviour. It will happen gradually. And it will happen at the hands of the people – at the ballot box. Or it will not happen at all.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty