We use the term “feigned incredulity” in these pages quite a bit, but there’s nothing “feigned” about the incredulity emanating from Democrats and ardent Trump detractors on Monday.
In a sense, the President’s exoneration in the special counsel probe isn’t wholly surprising. One point we’ve made here repeatedly over the course of the last year is that Trump, either by design or, far more likely, by virtue of being a silly person, has made a public show of obstructing justice. We are, after all, talking about a man who said the following to Lester Holt about his (Trump’s) decision to fire James Comey:
He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
Trump would later try to claim that NBC “fudged the tape”, but in reality, Trump “fudged” the coverup. He admitted to obstructing justice on national television and if you recall, his lawyers were acutely aware of how grievous that quote actually was.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Because in the end, it looks like the obstruction line is blurred when you do it openly. Trump bullied, badgered and otherwise intimidated everyone associated with the investigation including (and especially) then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But he did it all on Twitter, at rallies and in remarks to the media. In other words, he committed this particular high crime in the most public of public forums and he did it habitually and loudly.
Relive Trump’s real-time, public obstruction odyssey
In the end, Mueller made a point to say that his report “did not exonerate” Trump in the obstruction case but you’ve got to think the public nature of Trump’s questionable conduct muddied the waters for the special counsel considerably. Is it a conspiracy when it’s conducted in plain sight?
Further, William Barr has made no secret of his disdain for the obstruction angle. He spelled that out in a memo to Rod Rosenstein dated June 8, 2018, called “Mueller’s ‘Obstruction’ Theory’ (you can read it in full here).
And besides, Barr’s contentious history with special counsels is legendary – his friendship with Mueller notwithstanding (more here).
Mueller surely knew Barr would not pursue the obstruction case against Trump, which one assumes means Mueller didn’t think it was compelling enough to pursue on his own – or at least not compelling enough to risk a scenario where the special counsel’s office pushed the issue knowing that the people at Justice overseeing the probe would push back.
It’s also interesting that Rosenstein allowed himself (again) to be the fall guy (Rod of course wrote the memo justifying Comey’s dismissal and Barr’s letter to Congress on Sunday made a point of noting that Rosenstein was consulted on the decision not to pursue the obstruction case against Trump).
But perhaps more importantly, Robert Mueller is a consummate lawman – a straight arrow. Trump’s efforts to castigate him as a hopelessly conflicted, nefarious “deep state” operative aside, Mueller is, by all accounts, a “button-down” guy, which means the idea that he would “go rogue” and accuse a sitting president of what amounts to high treason and/or with trying to obstruct an investigation into that alleged high treason without being absolutely sure he could prove it to the public was probably far-fetched in the first place. Trump, it would certainly appear, didn’t give Mueller enough credit when it comes to his (Bob’s) reputation for professionalism.
Finally – and this is obviously the most consequential point – what America got on Sunday is indicative of what happens when nations are slowly backsliding into autocracy and one-man rule.
This is precisely what Michael Cohen tried to warn everyone about during his public testimony last month. If you recall, Cohen essentially scoffed at the notion that anyone was going to find the smoking (or maybe “smocking” is better) gun on his former boss. Recall this clip:
That played into the characterization of Trump as a “mob boss” (something we would generally disagree with because, frankly, Trump lacks even a perverse honor code). But now, he no longer has to “speak in code” or otherwise obscure his activities in order to avoid running afoul of America’s institutions. Trump has triumphed over those institutions. The checks and balances have failed. And that’s in part because folks like Bob Mueller are playing by a different rule book than Trump.
Arguably, there are no longer any limits on what Trump can and can’t do (short of things that would land him at the Hague).
Democrats’ impeachment bid is now in shambles, something Nancy Pelosi pseudo-predicted weeks ago. The Justice Department is clearly in Trump’s pocket (as noted above, the accidental “genius” of Trump’s obstruction is that by doing it in full view of the public, it wasn’t obstruction anymore). The GOP has morphed into a personality cult and has demonstrated, time and again, the party’s willingness to subjugate any and all traditional Republican values (e.g., pretensions to high Christian morality, fiscal rectitude, respect for venerated GOP stalwarts like John McCain, loyalty to America’s allies, an aversion to dictators, etc.) to their allegiance to Trump.
Yes, Trump’s legal woes will continue and it does seem likely that, if he ever leaves office, he will end up being indicted by New York for financial crimes.
But that’s just it – under what circumstances will Trump leave office? Without lapsing into bombast or hysterics, we would flatly note that in the absence of some kind of bombshell between now and the election, it seems highly unlikely that he will lose in 2020. The exoneration in the Mueller probe is obviously a huge boon and even if he were to lose, he’d just claim massive voter fraud and move to nullify the results. After all, he claimed massive voter fraud even when he won.
After that, he’ll look for an excuse to extend presidential term limits and if Republicans manage to retake Congress at some point, he’ll probably succeed.
Again, none of that is an effort to resort to hysterics. Rather, it increasingly seems like the most plausible trajectory.
Having crumbled the country’s institutions and having essentially antiquated the whole idea of “checks and balances”, Trump now faces a new challenge: Shaping and defining autocracy in America.
One wonders if he appreciates the gravity of that.
And on that note, we’ll leave you with some excerpts from an article that ran in The Atlantic exactly two years ago called “How To Build An Autocracy“, in which the author imagined what America might look like in 2021.
Itâ€™s 2021, and president Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivankaâ€™s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The presidentâ€™s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
The presidentâ€™s critics, meanwhile, have found little hearing for their protests and complaints. A Senate investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign sputtered into inconclusive partisan wrangling. Concerns about Trumpâ€™s purported conflicts of interest excited debate in Washington but never drew much attention from the wider American public.
Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.
Anyway, doesnâ€™t everybody do it?
The business community learned its lesson early. â€œYou work for me, you donâ€™t criticize me,â€ the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his companyâ€™s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trumpâ€™s personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.
The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justiceâ€™s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the companyâ€™s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paperâ€™s new ownerâ€”an investor group based in Slovakiaâ€”has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Some people believe them; others donâ€™t. Itâ€™s hard work to ascertain what is true.
Nobodyâ€™s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as everâ€”provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.