Robert Mueller Can't Save Us
The special counsel keeps getting Trump lackeys to plead guilty to federal crimes. It looks more and more like the president is doomed, but will it be too little, too late?
Left Image: Photo by Shawn Thew/Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images. Right Image: Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
This weekend should have been a triumphant one for the Resistance. On Friday, Michael Flynn—the cartoonish ex-general who led a "lock her up" chant onstage at the Republican National Convention—pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Less than ten months after an historically short stint as Donald Trump's national security adviser ended with his resigning in disgrace, Flynn emerged as the biggest get so far in Robert Mueller's swirling probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Legal analysts and political reporters alike were quick to poke and prod at who might be next: Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and (erstwhile) consigliere? What about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who keeps changing his story on contacts he had with Russians during the transition?
The juiciest implication was that, in exchange for an extremely generous plea deal that left out a bunch of other plausible charges, Flynn was ready to sing about his old boss. Trump's impeachment, it seemed, was more plausible than ever—his downfall within reach.
But liberals are hardly rejoicing. Instead, they spent the weekend despairing at a comically rushed and incredibly malignant tax bill sailing through Congress. This was on display at my favorite neighborhood bar in Brooklyn around 2 AM Saturday morning: When word came in that a version of the toxic legislation had passed the Senate, the already-dire mood soured even more, with any jubilation at Flynn's conviction quickly forgotten. The commentary was downright apocalyptic on social media, with plenty claiming that the GOP was literally "destroying America."
As the New York Times reported, this isn't just a corporate tax cut, but legislation that has the potential to reshape America for decades to come. The likely winners? The militantly religious, the superrich, and the shadowy corporate interests who saw Trump as a useful lackey and are now milking him for as much as he's worth while they still can. Taken in tandem with Trump's quiet campaign to stock the federal judiciary with ideologues, it looks like no matter what Mueller does, digging out of this mess could be a decades-long affair.
In other words, even if Trump were to get tried, impeached, and convicted, he's already changed the country forever.
"He's deregulating many areas of American life," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, who compared Trump's ability to change America in the face of an existential legal threat to another notorious president's. "Nixon did a lot in terms of public policy even as the [Watergate] scandal unfold[ed]," he told me. "It's not as if the president was totally impotent because the scandal unraveled and you had these investigations—he still was accomplishing a lot, even after 1972. It's not an either-or proposition with presidential politics."
Last month, Trump mounted a quasi-legal coup of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, installing a loyalist with flagrant conflicts of interest in a key watchdog role responsible for keeping tabs on student loans, home mortgages, and other easily abused financial products. He's likely to continue to inch closer to passing a budget eviscerating agencies that are already enduring immense neglect—and, in some cases, outright destruction—from within. And before Mueller even began his investigation, Trump successfully got Neil Gorsuch—a hard-right conservative who even other Supreme Court justices think is a preening nerd—installed to a lifetime gig on the highest court in the land.
Trump isn't likely to put his agenda on hold just because his closest advisers face the prospect of federal indictment. In fact, Republicans in Congress seem to just be moving even more quickly on their biggest priorities in order to stay ahead of Mueller's investigation.
"As a practical matter, [Trump] has as much time as Republicans in Congress give him," Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me, adding Republicans could be moving extra aggressively on key legislative items like taxes because "they sense this administration may not have a particularly long half-life." (Some legal experts think Mueller could indict Trump without the cooperation of Congress, but that would be messy, to say the least.)
Even if things go as Democrats hope and Trump were to be removed by impeachment, it's not like the the Resistance would immediately gain some major new foothold in the government. Mike Pence, as plenty of smart people have pointed out in recent months, is not exactly a pragmatic alternative to Trump. Democrats are almost certain to pick up some seats in the midterm elections after an historically dysfunctional first year for the incumbent president and his party, but gerrymandering and shadow money will make it an uphill battle.
"The Republicans in Congress are not going to get any less conservative either way, and if they control the chambers, you're still looking at a very conservative landscape," Zelizer told me. "That's also what protects the president in a way that Nixon was more vulnerable—right now, you have a Republican Congress that is loyal, most of all, to their partisan interest. They are not willing to do anything unless forced to tamper with that. Roy Moore is a great example of how far they will go.... They will protect the president until they no longer can."
And unlike Nixon, Trump enjoys the fruit of decades of institution-building by the far-right and its biggest donors. Media outlets like Breitbart, corporate-funded think tanks that will produce reports saying whatever their donors want them to, and hyper-aggro activist corps with no qualms about going all the way on behalf of their guy—he's got a lot of support for the long haul.
Democrats "will have to crack all these barriers to get to the president," as Zelizer put it.
None of which is to say Mueller's work isn't important, or that Trump might not launch a constitutional crisis by firing him any day now. Democrats can (and probably should) use convictions of the president's henchmen in campaign ads and on the stump. Scandals like the private jet fetish that forced Tom Price to resign as Health and Human Services secretary may come in handy. And it's practically guaranteed that Trump's anemic approval ratings will drag down some Republicans with him.
But if the legal fantasies keeping liberal podcast listeners warm at night do pan out, will they recognize the America that's left when the dust has settled?
As Theda Skocpol, the Harvard political scientist who did pioneering research on the Tea Party movement Trump weaponized last year, wrote to me Sunday, "I don't think I want to weigh in on the Mueller probe. The Trump presidency is a disaster for America no matter what happens with that."
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