the national circus

Why the Mueller Investigation Wasn’t Watergate

Attorney General William Barr. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, why the Mueller investigation wasn’t Watergate, the role of the press in investigating Trump, and if Washington will return to normal.

Before Robert Mueller submitted his report to Attorney General William Barr, many people thought of Mueller’s work as a kind of Watergate investigation, with everything that means about presidential accountability.  Now that his investigation, at least according to Barr, has ended inconclusively, were we wrong to think of it that way?

No one thought Mueller’s work was more of a Watergate investigation than Donald Trump, who outdid the Nixon template in trying to derail it, to the point of vilifying his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, because he didn’t prevent it. But given that Mueller’s narrow brief was to determine if Trump and his campaign had conspired with Russia’s efforts to sabotage the 2016 election, it was never in the cards that he could adjudicate all the wrongdoing of a kleptocratic administration laced with grifters and liars from the top down. And if you believe, as I did and do, that there was a near-zero chance that the Vichy Republicans of the Senate would convict Trump in an impeachment trial, it is arguable that Trump might have escaped even if Mueller had recommended prosecution for conspiracy. His base would have rallied around him as a victim of a deep-state conspiracy, with Mueller and James Comey as co-conspirators taking orders from George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Jussie Smollett, and the ghost of John McCain.

Of course, Mueller had an ancillary brief as well: to investigate possible obstruction of justice. The verdict of Not Guilty has been rendered by Trump’s own appointee, William Barr, without letting any independent authority, including Congress, see whether the evidence meets a prosecutorial legal standard or not. Meanwhile, those looking for presidential accountability must rely on other law enforcement agencies, starting with the Southern District of New York, as they investigate and, if warranted, indict any in the Trump White House, Trump Organization, the Trump Inaugural Committee, or Trump family who committed un-Russia-related crimes. I still believe that if Trump leaves office prematurely, it will be according to the Al Capone model — not for capital offenses but for tax fraud or other financial crimes that might encourage him to strike an omnibus deal rather than spend the rest of his post–White House life in court fighting to save his company, fortune, and possibly his children (if he gives a damn about them).

Meanwhile let’s be grateful for the good news. I accept and am relieved by Mueller’s finding that Trump didn’t conspire with Russia when it attacked the very heart of American democracy. The bad news is that Trump still is colluding with Russia as he attempts to destroy NATO, soften sanctions, and fulfill other items on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list. Trump may already be colluding, passively if not illegally, with Russia’s attack on the 2020 election as well by mounting, at most, a nominal effort to combat it. And there’s no reason to doubt that he will continue to ignore, deride, and delegitimize the American intelligence agencies which are tracking it. Surely his biggest takeaway from Mueller’s verdict is that, as in 2016, he can openly reap and celebrate Russia’s efforts on his behalf without having to be a participant in them. As Cold War parlance would have it, he’s a useful idiot for the Russian cause even if he’s not a Russian agent. It’s not for nothing that the Kremlin has been celebrating the Mueller report with the same hyperbolic enthusiasm as Sean Hannity.

In the wake of the Mueller report, the debate over the Russia investigation has, in some corners, turned into a debate over the role of the press — both the new facts reporters dug up, and the expectations journalists and outlets have set. Looking back, did the media play too much of a role?

Had it not been for the press, we never would have known about any of Trump’s dealings with Russia or those of his convicted cohorts. That Mueller determined that these corrupt activities did not rise to the level of an illegal conspiracy does not mean that they didn’t happen and didn’t include other crimes. The facts remain the facts. The efforts of the White House and its allies to overstate Mueller’s report — or, more accurately, Barr’s four-page spin on a document that runs over 300 pages, not including mountains of supporting documents — as complete exoneration for Trump is evidence that they know well that the exoneration is far from complete.

Where the media went overboard, myself included, is when its punditry shifted into premature adjudication and raised the expectation that the walls were soon to close in on Trump. In cable news, there was an added systemic issue that needs to be addressed. When reporters covering stories like the Mueller probe appear on cable news programs that have a partisan point of view and are populated by anchors, experts, and opinion journalists speculating on what may happen next, those reporters lend their imprimatur to the overall narrative being presented, even if that is far from their intent. On cable news, the border between reporting and punditry is not clearly demarcated as it is, say, between a newspaper’s news report and opinion pages. The criticism being heaped on the Times and Washington Post in particular is unwarranted — their investigative reportage on the Russia story was uncompromising, meticulous, and holds up — but it is easy for critics to stir them into the brief against cable hysteria, which reached a ludicrous peak in the week or so before Mueller turned in his report.

In what some observers note might be an attempt to move the Mueller report out of the headlines, the Trump administration opened a new attack on the Affordable Care Act just one day after Barr’s summary was made public. Will Washington return to business as usual?

It already has. Steve Bannon was surely correct when he used an implicit King Kong analogy this week in predicting that the president will now “come off his chains” and go “full animal.” (It’s sobering to contemplate that what we’ve seen thus far is only partial animal.) Without the “witch hunt” and Mueller to kick around anymore, a toddler like Trump has too much time on his hands and will cast about for any loud rattle he can shake. It’s a measure of how unleashed he is that his first big play would be to try again to blow up Obamacare, the very move that cost the GOP the House in 2018, and to declare that the Republican Party, which spent years failing to come up with its own health plan, “will soon be known as the party of health care.” Even Susan Collins, whose usual stance is to say she’s “concerned” by such Trump actions, declared she was “appalled.”

The first post-Mueller report week is not yet over, and already this liberated Trump has followed his health-care hand grenade by threatening to close the Mexican border, intervene in the Smollett case, and declare war on OPEC. He is appointing an unqualified political hack and IRS deadbeat to the Federal Reserve. His secretary of Education, the inimitable Betsy DeVos, has called for defunding the Special Olympics. The Mueller finding on collusion does nothing to alter the reality that we have a mentally unstable and lawless Putin-Kim wannabe running amok in the White House, perhaps more empowered than ever, with no one applying the brakes. What will happen next is anyone’s guess and everyone’s problem.

Frank Rich: Why the Mueller Investigation Wasn’t Watergate