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By my count, Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees last Wednesday produced six significant headlines.
He confirmed that he had not exonerated President Trump. He said that Trump asked his staff to falsify records. He suggested there were “currently” FBI investigations into whether people in Trump’s orbit were compromised. He agreed that Trump’s written answers to his questions were not “always truthful.”
He admitted (more or less) that Trump had met the three elements of obstruction of justice. And, though he tried to walk it back, he let slip that, had Department of Justice policy not prohibited him from doing so, he would have indicted Donald Trump.
But this being Washington, those six headlines were muddled in the kind of second-rate political theater only Congress can deliver: backbenchers desperate for a moment in the spotlight; Democrats eager for the kill; Republicans slobbering for the president’s affection; and, most significantly, a halting, underwhelming and reluctant star witness.
The Beltway media mainly judged it on those terms — the spectacle. For a prime example of the genre, see NBC’s Chuck Todd, who offered this trenchant analysis on Twitter: “On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the [DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel] guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.”
It says a lot about this moment — about the failures of the media, about the perils of polarization, about the frailty of our democratic norms — that a special counsel could tell Congress under oath that the president had committed crimes, and, because of the 74-year-old’s lack of verve, this is considered a win for the president.
But it also speaks to how thoroughly Democrats have botched this whole affair.
This spectacle, after all, was unnecessary. Mueller had already said what he needed to say. He’d laid out a report — 448 pages — that all but begged Congress to do what he could not: hold Donald Trump accountable.
I wrote after the Mueller report became public that House Democrats should begin impeachment hearings even though there was no chance the Senate would convict Trump and even though such a course could prove politically treacherous. It was, I argued, their constitutional obligation.
They’ve obviously not done so. Speaker Nancy Pelosi — though she talks of “crimes that were committed against our Constitution” and Trump’s “existential threat to our democracy” — wants to go slow, waiting until they have the “strongest possible hand.”
She’s deemed impeachment too risky, especially for her caucus’ freshmen, many of whom come from moderate suburban districts.
She’s also worried that voters don’t understand how impeachment works, and that the base will ultimately be disappointed when the Senate shrugs aside the House’s indictment and Trump declares vindication.
These aren’t unreasonable arguments. But they miss the point.
It’s the same point missed by those who caution against focusing on Trump’s racism. Talking about his attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, or his border concentration camps, or his embrace of white nationalists, they say, could detract from “kitchen table” issues that matter to voters: health care, the environment, education, jobs.
To the degree it matters, Democrats should, of course, offer an agenda. But the dirty secret of American elections is that big policy proposals don’t matter all that much. In our polarized electorate, people are more motivated to vote against the other side than for their own.
The 2018 blue wave, for instance, didn’t happen because suburbanites fell in love with Democrats’ plans; rather, they were fed up with Trump’s antics, pissed off that the GOP tried to gut the Affordable Care Act and wanted some adult supervision in Washington.
Another thing: If you’re closely attuned to policy decisions, you probably see an administration that stumbles between dangerously inept and actively malevolent on most issues.
If you’re not, however — most people aren’t — you see an economy doing pretty well. And for any other president, absent a recession in the next year, that would probably be enough to win reelection.
But Donald Trump isn’t any other president. He’s not a normal president. And treating him like one could prove self-defeating.
Consider this: On the one hand, Democrats are telling Americans that Trump is, in Pelosi’s words, an “existential threat to our democracy”: a corrupt, racist liar who has obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws, welcomed foreign interference into elections, is defying congressional subpoenas, and might be a sexual predator.
On the other hand, they’re not going to do anything about it — at least not yet. Eventually, perhaps.
How does that not signal that this is all a game? This is the worst kind of mixed messaging, the kind that muddies any sense of moral clarity.
And it’s the kind that could give Trump a second term.
Of course, Donald Trump shouldn’t be impeached because it’s good politics. Donald Trump should be impeached because he is uniquely unfit to be president, because he’s a criminal, because impeaching him is the right thing to do.
If Trump truly poses a threat to our democracy, should we be talking about anything else?
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY week, in Durham, North Carolina.)