Monday, April 29, 2019

After Mueller: Seeing What is Before You-On 3Q

“Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.” —Henry David Thoreau

It has been a little over a week since the redacted Mueller Report was released, and so many words have been spilled that there could be a drought by summer if the umbrage reservoirs are not refilled. Can we just retire the word “closure”?

The legal verdict is in, and I don’t plan to re-litigate it here. Robert Mueller determined there was not enough to charge President Trump with collusion, and Attorney General William Barr decided that Trump did not obstruct justice. We all can look at the (unredacted) facts they based their judgments on, and question whether those judgments were correct, but this phase of it is almost certainly over. The President and his inner circle are not going to be indicted.

That certainly is life-affirming. What’s next? How do we read our fate, see what is before us, and walk on into futurity?

We might start with perhaps the most under-reported angle of the cycle: the practical implications of Mueller’s finding that the Trump Campaign’s scores of contacts with the Russians and WikiLeaks were not, per se, illegal. Despite diligent efforts, despite countless dots, Mueller could not find what he thought would have been determinative—a hard agreement that would have nailed down collusion. His team evaluated a lot of meetings, a lot of discussions, a lot of timing coincidences, but, in the absence of a specific exchange of quid pro quos, smoke, no fire.

I’m not critiquing Mueller’s thought process. I accept it. But it leaves us with a serious problem.

If we concede that what Trump did was legal, then he created a template for the future: Meet as much as you want with a foreign power, talk, explore points of mutual interest, but don’t actually “agree” to anything. Apparently, as long as you don’t say, “Wouldn’t mind some traffic problems in Cuyahoga County, what would you want on sanctions relief?” it’s not criminal. This is exactly the thinking that leads the Trump team to send Rudy Giuliani out there on a Sunday morning to tell Jake Tapper, “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians.”

Let us all hope that when we get a little distance from this, smart principled people from both sides will realize the incredible threat Rudy’s ravings constitute. You don’t talk to the Russians, or the Chinese, or any other country, or a stateless entity like WikiLeaks, whether they are friend or foe of the United States, to gain an advantage in an election. Those folks will see it as transactional and, sooner or later, if something is not paid for, will present a bill for services rendered that can only be redeemed in the currency of national interest.

But what Trump did, he did. The election is over; Mueller is not the Deus Ex Machina. Big win for Trump, no matter how you spin it. He’s been fundraising off it from the moment Barr dropped the four page summary with the smiley-faces plastered all over it.

Of course, some wins are more pleasurable than others, and Trump is not feeling the love quite so much anymore. That’s why he keeps up a stream of invective-laden tweets and comments including phrases like “hit job” and “true Trump-haters” rather than just taking a lap. The Mueller Report is terribly damaging to Trump’s image. What we have is a portrait of a grifty, swampy, unserious, unqualified man and his grabby, often corrupt team playing footsie with the Russians and WikiLeaks, then lying about it continuously, screaming “fake news,” and letting (and encouraging) his underlings do the same. What’s more, Trump’s impulses are awful. Mueller documented 10 close calls which, if Trump’s staff had actually done what their boss demanded, clearly would have constituted obstruction. Since their scruples led them to refuse, and Mueller had some concerns about indicting a sitting President, he passed the obstruction decision to Barr, who then applied his somewhat more idiosyncratic moral code to assume the dual role of defense counsel and judge and then exonerate his own client.

What about all that nasty “spying” on the Trump campaign? Mueller thoroughly undermined the rationale for that one, although it won’t stop Trump and his conservative allies in Congress and the media from screeching about it and demanding investigations. Ask yourself seriously whether the intelligence agencies should ignore roughly 140 contacts between any Presidential campaign and a foreign power, much less one with which we have been fighting proxy wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and to which we just gave notice of withdrawal from a major nuclear arms control treaty over its non-compliance.

In a way, Mueller and perhaps even Barr did us a favor. A legal solution was never going to be satisfactory. Trump’s actions as a candidate and then as a President need to be judged in a political forum. Congress has to do its job and decide whether remedies like impeachment or censure are appropriate, and the electorate has to do theirs, by making their preferences known to their representatives, and marching to the voting booth next November.

Impeachment? The House can certainly start if it wants. We impeached a President for skanky personal behavior with a White House aide; why can’t we impeach one for actions that challenged the legitimacy of our elections and potentially compromised our national security? But see what is before you. It is not done in a vacuum. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are almost certainly right. The public doesn’t currently support it, and the chances of 20 Republican Senators voting to convict are roughly equal to those of William Weld knocking Trump out in the primaries.

I have seen very reasonable arguments that the rule of law needs to be defended, that history demands it, and that public hearings might be cathartic and informative, as Nixon’s were. There is a lot of truth in them. But Trump’s America is not Nixon’s. Yes, this could be a great civics lesson, but it could also turn into a circus. What’s more, I cannot see Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsey Graham making a solemn visit to the White House to deliver the bad news that time is up. This isn’t your father’s Republican Party.

So what are Democrats to do when it just burns us up to see all this? Not only is Trump President because, in part, he had an affair with Putin, but he’s kicking the crap out of us—going after everything we care about with the venom of an outlaw-biker-gang leader on meth. It burns even more that, after all those lies, he calls us the traitors (the dirtiest word in the English language) and blasts as an Enemy of the People anyone in the media who dares cover him with anything less than fulsome praise.

See what is before you. We Democrats have to control ourselves. To beat Trump, to start the process of cleaning the stables, we need to see him thoroughly repudiated by the electorate. That is not going to be easy. He cheats—we know that. The Russians are already sowing discord in Democratic ranks and targeting Bernie voters, and reports are that the subject can’t even be discussed in the White House. He’s the incumbent and has a tremendous amount of leverage to use taxpayer assets for his benefit. Republicans control voting procedures in some critical states—and no, Brett Kavanaugh is not going to help us out on voter suppression. Trump’s base remains a rock—his approval ratings have a hard floor. As for money, the people who have quietly benefited from Trump, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead with him, are going to hold their noses and write some seriously big checks to protect their investments.

All this is known. And, at times like this, what do we Democrats do? We see what is beside us, and form a circular firing squad. Amy was mean to her staff; Kirsten was mean to Al Franken; Kamala was mean to criminals; Joe can’t be mean (he’s not a mean guy), but he is a little touchy. Pete is not mean, but he’s so many things at the same time we can’t even keep track of them. He’s also not really a Liberal. Bernie, on the other hand, is not really a Democrat—and, from looking at last year’s tax return, not really a Socialist. Elizabeth is not really a Native American. And Beto is not nearly as neato as Pete-O. And that’s just the first tier! Wait until we get to Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Comet—have you heard what they have been saying about reindeers? Personally, I was rooting for Sherrod Brown (but isn’t he kind of rumpled?).

Come, on, Democrats. Surely, we can get past this crazy, fault-finding variation on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” where we feel a tusk and think it’s Amy Klobuchar’s salad-scooping comb? Even the Rushmore Four were flawed. No one ever achieved high office (maybe not even Mayor of South Bend) without being a little sharp-elbowed or “flexible” at times. It’s not like we’ve always been pure ourselves—after all, we nominated both Clintons.

Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina. We need a good candidate. Articulate, tough, fearless, willing take a punch to give one. Americans admire someone who is willing to fight for something they care about—it’s part of the reason why some of them took a chance on Trump in the first place. We have to compete for those votes—just energizing our base will lead to bigger margins in Blue States and more complaints about the Electoral College.

So, let’s play Trump Voter eharmony (or Tinder, depending on whether you want a long term relationship or would be content with an Election Day fling). How are we going to woo enough of those folks who decided to date the bad-boy with the cool convertible last time, particularly since we’ve been telling them for the last 2 ½ years they have terrible taste in partners and must have some moral flaw for sticking with him?

See what is before you. It’s not just about Trump, because many Trump supporters have internalized his excesses and still see something that they like in him. It’s us—our failure to offer an attractive alternative, not merely in a candidate, but also in ideas and vision. It is possible, by being the Anti-Trump and hoping he self-destructs, that we might chip away just enough votes to regain the White House. But that’s betting on an inside straight.

What we need to do is remake ourselves on the fly and, in the words of a very smart Millennial I know, give the voters something they did not get with Hillary—the sense of being part of a movement and not merely supporting a candidacy. “I’m with her” was a terrible slogan. “She’s with us” would have been the better one.

In the end, everyone worries about the future, and his or her part in it. Trump addresses that: Put aside every tweet, every insult, and every rant, and the core of his campaign (especially his focus on immigration) is that the solution to the future is to restore the America of the past. This may be regressive, but it is particularly potent with voters who feel their standing is challenged.

We have to do better. Our balance is off—inequality and injustice are important issues, but so also are healthcare, the environment, opportunity at a time where technology is increasingly replacing jobs, and privacy in a pervasively intrusive world. We should work to make the latter four ours.

If we Democrats can, then we can construct a new winning coalition and begin to recapture the things we value. But, if we can’t, if all we can do is bicker and fall back on self-indulgent outrage, then we are doomed to repeat recent history.

But it will be a worse history. As Steve Bannon said in an interview with Politico, “You’re going to get pure Trump off the chain. Four years of Donald Trump in payback mode.”

See that before you.

"After Mueller: Seeing What Is Before You" was first published on on April 29, 2019.  For it, and other original content, please visit:

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Michael Liss