Robert Mueller may have haunted Washington like a “spectral presence,” as The New York Times put it. But the ghost-like photo of him standing across from the White House as he left church on Sunday should send a very earthly message to Democrats.
President Trump won’t be impeached like Bill Clinton, or forced to resign like Richard Nixon, because of Mueller. He must be beaten on election day.
Mueller was the one attending a house of worship, but Trump got what he prayed for. According to Attorney General William P. Barr, Mueller found no evidence that Trump or anyone connected to his campaign coordinated with the Russian government in any interference with the 2016 election. Mueller ducked on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, apparently leaving it to Barr and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, to decide he did not. That conclusion is no surprise, given that Barr wrote a memo last June, first disclosed by The Wall Street Journal, that said there were no grounds for an obstruction charge. For Democrats, that remains a point of contention. But if that’s the main argument for replacing Trump in 2020, a Democrat won’t win.
With help from his attorney general, Trump framed the Mueller narrative: “complete and total exoneration.” On the obstruction matter, Barr quotes Mueller as saying, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” It doesn’t matter. Of course, the public should get to see the full report. Mueller and Barr should testify about the findings. But counting on that to change the overall political equation is foolish.
Hardcore deplorables are sticking with Trump, no matter what Mueller discovered. The battle for the White House is over “persuade-ables” and finding enough of them to ditch Trump and get a Democrat to 270 electoral votes. Championing a switch to the popular vote may thrill a CNN town hall, but it’s not going to happen. With the end of the Mueller investigation, “collusion” resonates only with those suffering from the most severe case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. If Democrats don’t give up on it, they will be aiding and abetting Trump’s reelection.
Morality, decency, and civility are core values that can appeal to some voters who are tired of Trump’s antics. Even basking in post-Mueller victory, the president was typically bitter and ungracious. His whining about the Mueller investigation shows his ignorance about what truly makes America great. When legitimate questions were raised about the 2016 election, the country had a way to fully and fairly investigate them. Instead of reveling in the beauty of democracy and the rule of law, Trump did his best, as usual, to degrade it. His continuing attacks on the late Senator John McCain are another reminder, as if we needed it, of his pettiness and lack of class.
Beyond that, there is much to challenge about the direction Trump and his supporters are taking this country, from immigration to environmental issues, from tax policy to health care. That’s where the battle to win hearts and minds in 2020 begins and ends. Too many people already accept Trump’s personal immorality and unethical business practices. The bar is so low for him, it’s hard to imagine anything shocking enough to emerge as a political game changer. The “persuade-ables” must be persuaded by old-fashioned self-interest. What can a Trump alternative offer to make their lives better and more meaningful?
For all of Trump’s attacks on Mueller, the special counsel empowered him in the end. Mueller may be ghost-like, but Democrats can no longer count on him to haunt Trump, like Banquo haunting Macbeth. They need other weapons to oust this president.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.