When, on May 17, 2017, the Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Trump campaign and possible collusion with the Russians, The New York Times virtually hailed it as a triumph of democracy. Mueller was described in the most glowing of terms with words like “unblemished,” “credible,” “exacting,” and as a man “who is credited with building the modern FBI.”
To listen to Democrats, Mueller’s appointment was the beginning of the end of the Trump presidential nightmare. MSNBC’s Joy Reid even envisioned a scenario where Trump would be led from the White House by federal marshals. This set the tone for how Mueller’s investigation would be characterized until it ended on Friday. Indeed, as recently as last week CBS News labeled Mueller a “folk hero.”
For more than 675 days, we have been subjected to a steady drip of leaks, endless Russia collusion coverage and the suggestion that Trump was the Manchurian — ur, I mean, the Russian — candidate who was sent to assassinate American democracy as we know it. Whenever there was no news on the Mueller front, we could always expect Stormy Daniels to be given extensive coverage. Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s alleged wrongdoing would be the long-awaited answer to Hillary Clinton’s book, "What Happened."
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Only it wasn’t.
Or, more precisely, it was; it just wasn’t the answer Democrats wanted — or should I say, it wasn’t the answer Democrats needed? On the same day that Mueller was appointed special counsel, Trump issued this: “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”
Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report indicates this is precisely what happened, which is highly problematic for Democrats. Having put their proverbial eggs in the Russia collusion basket, the Mueller report is an anticlimactic ending to an epic buildup. Indeed, I feel like I have been binge-watching "Lost" only to discover that the island isn’t real, and that the numbers don’t mean a thing.
Mueller's integrity comes back to bite
Of course, Democrats did themselves in by making the a priori assumption that Trump was guilty of collusion and/or obstruction of justice, and that Mueller would ferret it out. Whatever his personal feelings for Mueller, it is to Trump’s good fortune that Mueller was the man conducting the investigation. Had it been a man deemed friendly to the Trump campaign, we would now be hearing howls of protest that the whole thing was an inside job.
And this is where it gets uncomfortable for Democrats. Because they have continually endorsed Mueller as the font of integrity ruthlessly searching for the truth, it now becomes more than a little awkward to condemn the results of his investigation. What do they do now?
For the moment, Democrats appear to have a two-pronged strategy:
First, launch yet another Trump investigation. “The Mueller report is one document,” declared Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia. “It is not, however, the final word on ongoing investigations, criminal or otherwise.” Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Eliot Engel of New York remain equally defiant.
Second, they are attacking Attorney General Barr for not releasing the full report. This enables them to continue doing what they have done throughout the Mueller investigation: Hint that the Trump campaign did indeed do something sinister, but it just hasn’t been revealed to the public. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler is, for instance, already suggesting a “cover-up.”
Both strategies are inherently risky.
Defense strategies could crack wide open
In the first instance, Democrats run the risk of giving Trump victim status by appearing to be on a witch hunt. If Mueller found nothing on this president after more than $25 million, two years of investigation and 34 indictments, the public may deem that enough.
In the second instance, the strategy can work only so long as the attorney general does not release the report or, if he does, it is found to contain the hoped-for smoking gun. If, however, Barr releases the report — a prospect Trump says “wouldn’t bother me at all” — and his summary proves to be accurate enough, this strategy fails, too.
What then? Would Democrats turn on Mueller and his investigation? Cracks in that dam are already appearing.
Writing for New York magazine, Eric Levitz is calling the Mueller report a “dud.” Continuing, he says with palpable disappointment that Mueller “took a narrow interpretation of his mandate,” “failed to prove” the allegations against Trump, “and refused to draw any conclusion about the most mundane and plausible (allegations).”
Democrats must have been getting indications that the Mueller report was not going to provide them proof of Trump offenses meeting the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard for impeachment. As if to appear magnanimous, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began backing away from the idea weeks ago.
With the nuclear option off the table for now at least, Democrats are suddenly on the defensive and their strategy appears to be as cracked as the Liberty Bell. For them, the order of the day is damage control. Just how deep the damage runs remains to be seen.
They might have unwittingly ensured Trump’s re-election.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Without Mueller-report smoking gun, Democrats may have ensured Trump’s re-election