The Mueller Report: No Conspiracy, Maybe Obstruction, Lots of Denial

The final (redacted) version of Robert Mueller’s report came out last Friday, and we’ve learned that President Trump is a devious and incompetent liar, Russia definitively attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections, and that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia. In other words, nothing new, unless you’ve been mainlining the fevered conspiracy theories of cable news media straight into your veins for the past two years. Which, it appears, quite a few Americans on the left and right have been doing. As the investigation has spun on, with month after month of inquiry turning up nothing but Paul Manafort’s penchant for ostrich leather jackets and a handful of convictions unrelated to the original reason for the investigation, the passionate belief that the Trump campaign of course, obviously, was in the pocket of Putin looked increasingly like a superstition. It really was a massive exercise in wish-fulfillment: if Trump was elected on illegitimate grounds, then the media and political elite could avoid having to learn any lessons from the past several years.

It was always somewhat ludicrous to believe that the association of grifters, political neophytes, and idiot children that ran the Trump campaign was capable of serious collusion. They didn’t seem capable of colluding to order lunch, much less pull off what, if the breathless accounts of MSNBC anchors and the New York Times had been true, would have been one of the greatest crimes in American history. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. are many things, but masterminds they are not.

Of course, impeachment is still in play. It’s within Congress’s powers to impeach a President for basically anything within the bounds of reason; the process is almost entirely political, not judicial. But it seems Democratic leadership is reluctant to take that step, given that it would certainly fail and that very few Americans are going to change their opinion of the President based on the report. However, the odds of Mueller finding “legitimate” grounds for impeachment seemed increasingly slim as the investigation dragged on, and the rising tide of doubts was confirmed by Attorney General William Barr and then Mueller himself. Some holdouts are clinging to the slender thread of obstruction, but it’s very unclear how the head of the Executive branch discharging his constitutional powers would meet the legal standard for obstruction. It would be massively unethical and politically unwise, but an impeachment effort without airtight legal logic would split the country even farther apart and be guaranteed to fail.

A large portion of Americans, especially in the media and political class, genuinely seemed to believe that Trump was a Manchurian candidate hopelessly compromised by Russian intelligence. No one seemed to question that the main source of this conjecture was the Steele dossier, a piece of opposition research by the Clinton campaign that turns out to have almost entirely relied on hearsay. The fact that the current administration took a harder line on Russia than President Obama’s by ramping up arms sales to Ukraine, initiating new nuclear programs, and actually killing several hundred Russian mercenaries in Iraq, fazed nobody.

Why, however, did this belief in grand conspiracy persist against reasonable objections? Americans have always been prone to conspiracy theories — the Revolutionaries fervently believed that there was a grand British conspiracy to take control of the colonies behind their relatively tiny tax increases. More recently, the theorizing sprung from the fact that Americans who opposed Trump (and this is by no means only Democrats) were desperate for something, anything, to deny the fact the he had been elected fairly. I can sympathize with this — I would not have voted for Trump if I had been old enough to vote in 2016, and I plan to happily vote against him in 2020 regardless of who the Democrats run (although as I write this I have a nightmare vision of Beto O’Rourke becoming America’s best hope against Trump). And to be clear, while the document clearly exonerates the Trump campaign of collusion, it doesn’t show somebody fit to hold the office.

But the brute fact remains that he was legitimately elected. Spare me the complaints about the Electoral College — those are the rules both sides have played by for centuries. And the assumption that because Clinton won one percentage point more of the vote means that she would have easily won a popular vote election is wrongheaded. A nationwide popular vote campaign would look so different than our current elections that the exact results are almost impossible to predict. There are plenty of scenarios in which it would not go the Democrats’ way. One thinks of the tens of millions of extremely low turnout Republicans in the agricultural belt bordering the West Coast. Their votes would suddenly matter just as much as those of the much-discussed Texas Democrats’.

The constant references to “Russian bots” as somehow swaying the votes of millions of Americans are also absurd. The few dozen Russian hackers who made memes about Black Lives Matter and Pizzagate were a grain of sand in the insanity-filled beach of internet political discourse; their actual effect on the campaign is literally impossible to determine and nowhere near significant enough to take the drastic step of declaring an election illegitimate. It’s of course disturbing, but Russians did not convince Hillary Clinton to stop visiting Wisconsin, or for voters in Detroit to turn out at far lower rates than in the last election.

Americans who desperately waited for a messianic Mueller Report, one that would expose a vast conspiracy to undermine the Republic, have been disappointed. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the headlines. Journalists seamlessly pivoted to highlight that the report declined to clear, or charge, Trump of obstruction. These pseudo-charges are serious, but we already knew the President is unethical. The narrative tirelessly promoted by the media for two years has been one of collusion and conspiracy. But it’s now been brushed to the side, and discussion of obstruction is now presented as the only thing that ever really mattered. Honestly, however, the whole debacle is refreshingly clarifying. The idea that American journalists are somehow sacred guardians of the truth and not simply ordinary people who are prone to groupthink, wish fulfillment through headline-writing, and fitting facts to narrative deserved to be shattered.

This isn’t to say that good reporting doesn’t exist: national publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post still produce somewhat unbiased reporting on day-to-day politics and international affairs. But whenever a story looks like it may have a connection to the Trump-Russia narrative, journalistic ethics and process go out the window. This ends up helping, not hurting, Trump by nuking what little credibility the national media has left. However, it’s probably good for citizens of a democracy to be reminded that hackery doesn’t end where journalism begins.

In the end, the Mueller report leaves us exactly where we started. Our country is currently run by one its most dishonest, unqualified, and plain stupid candidates in recent memory. He was elected fairly, running against one of the least popular candidates operating one of the worst run campaigns in modern political history. And he is a malignant symptom of serious national illnesses: racism, xenophobia, elitism, a persuasive sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness. It would be better for everyone if we faced those concrete facts, rather than try will others into existence.

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