1 June 2018

Is the Mueller inquiry running out of steam?


Anyone who tells you that they know what’s going on in the Trump presidency is almost certainly wrong. The television experts are one-eyed with partisanship, and the online amateurs are unhinged by it. Believe nothing of what you see on television, and half of what you read. Which half you choose is up to you. Otherwise, America would not longer be a democracy.

The Trump presidency was conducting itself in the spirit of post-truthiness even before Trump had moved into the White House, with Sean Spicer’s claim that the Maximum Leader’s inauguration had attracted the largest audience ever. The range of negative emotions that Trump delights in evoking — the full metropolitan spectrum, really, from malice to distaste — does the rest.

The result is that most Democrats are willing to believe any negative story about Trump, and that most, though not all, Republicans, are willing to believe that the president, despite the shortcomings reported by Stormy Daniels, is no better or worse than most people, and that he is the victim of a campaign of media vilification.

He is, of course. The question is whether he deserves it. There are two answers to that question, as there are to most questions in American politics. The term ‘bicameral government’ is meant to refer to Congress, but it might equally describe the mindset of the majority of Americans. They get their news, and the pabulum that calls itself news, from their preferred media bubbles, left or right.

So any attempt to understand what’s happening requires us to perform that most exacting of mental acrobatics, the holding of two versions of the truth in the mind at the same time. Here we go.

Both versions place Donald Trump at the apex of American politics. In this much, if not much else, Trump resembles the early Christian ascetic St. Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pole near Aleppo for thirty-seven years. In the anti-Trump narrative, FBI special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team are like termites, gnawing at the base of the pole. At every stage of Mueller’s enquiry, the anti-Trump media chorus asks if this arrest or enquiry will be the one that topples Trump, and allows the media to enact the kind of indignities that so marred the last minutes of Colonel Gaddafi.

In the pro-Trump narrative, Trump, if not exactly a saint, is nevertheless a kind of martyr. His enemies failed to destroy him in the Republican primaries and at the ballot box. They failed when they tried to blacken his admittedly smutty character. Now, they are conspiring to bring him down by manipulating the law.

Defiantly, the people’s tribune hurls down invective from on high. Like Simeon Stylites, beset by hordes of pilgrims with questions about the nature of God, Trump tweets against “fake news” and the hypocrisy of a liberal media who accuse him of “complicity” while they are complicit with the “deep state”.

Whether the “deep state” exists is another question. One thing that the Trump presidency has brought to light is that the relationship between the state and the media is more collaborative than antagonistic. Even the episode on which the media prides its antagonism towards the state, the leaking of material about Watergate, required secret collaboration between the disenchanted FBI officer Mark Felt and the journalists of The Washington Post.

The Mueller inquiry too is being played out in leaky real time. We cannot be certain until Mueller releases his report, but so far the digging, leaking and spinning has not produced evidence directly incriminating Donald Trump in Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.

One reason for this is that the nature of Russian interference has yet to be ascertained. There can be no doubt that there was Russian interference. But there is good reason to believe that the interference was intended to exacerbate partisan divisions in general, rather than win the election for Trump in particular. The story has it that when the results came in on election night, Melania Trump laughed. Hillary Clinton didn’t expect Trump to win either, and neither did most of the media.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the Russians though Trump would win. Just look at the fake Facebook ads and postings. They’re as shoddy and unproductive as a Soviet steel mill. And if, as the Democrats and their supporters claim, Trump ‘owes’ Putin for services rendered, why have US-Russian relations declined sharply under Trump’s presidency? Trump has increased sanctions on Russia, and bombed Russia’s Syrian protectorate. These are not the actions of a Russian client, or a man who fears the Steele Dossier.

Now look at the men whom Mueller has charged, and the nature of the charges. Trump’s ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and ex-campaign deputy Rick Gates are charged with financial crimes. His ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn and the temporary foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos are charged with lying to the FBI.

No one has been charged with colluding with the Russians in the 2016 campaign — not even Manafort, Gates and Flynn, all of whose links to Russia predate Trump’s entry into politics.

Mueller may yet find evidence of collusion. He might — though I doubt it — find evidence suggesting that Trump was in the loop. Yet even that is unlikely to dislodge Trump from office. After the midterms, the Democrats might have the votes to push an impeachment resolution through the House of Representatives. But the midterms are, on current showing, likely to strengthen the Republicans’ grip on the Senate.

The longer the Mueller inquiry goes on without producing some serious scalps, the more trivial and partisan it looks. Perhaps Trump has sensed this. Earlier this year, he switched lawyers and changed strategy. Instead of complying with Mueller, he went on the offensive. He hired Emmet Flood, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s anti-impeachment defence team, to deal with Mueller. He also hired Rudy Giuliani to run the real campaign, the media battle for public opinion.

Trump and Giuliani’s version of the truth is not just that there was there no election collusion with Russia. They’ve also launched the counter-claim that the Obama administration and the FBI colluded against Trump’s campaign for the benefit of Hillary Clinton. The evidence includes texts from 2016 between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two high-ranking aides to ex-FBI director James Comey. On 2 September 2016, Page texted Strzok, “POTUS [President Barack Obama] wants to know everything we’re doing.”

That sort of material suggests that the allegations of “Russian collusion” may, like the allegations about Trump’s sexual morality, not only fail to dislodge Trump from high office. They may well also rebound upon the accusers. The #MeToo movement might have originated on the Left, but its most prominent victims have been on the Left, including Senator Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein, a longtime Democratic fundraiser.

Not surprisingly, polls suggest that the public is tiring of the Mueller inquiry. In April, an NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that, between March 2017 and March 2018, “unfavorable” impressions of Mueller has risen across the board, with Independents especially discontented. The number who believe that “Mueller’s investigation is fair” has declined year on year, from 52 per cent to 45 per cent.

Those numbers will continue to decline over the summer. Mueller will release his inquiry just before the mid-terms, while claiming that the timing of the release is not political. The Democrats will mobilise their base by baying for impeachment, but antagonise the Independents. The Republicans will claim that the FBI is trying to swing the midterms, and Trump will tweet from on high that the Dems and the deep state are out to get him.

Down here on the ground, those who do bother to vote in the midterms will face a question similar to the one which swung the 2016 election, and entirely dissimilar from the legal-moral frenzy in which the media and the political class are engaged. Which is more important, Trump’s economy with the actuality, or the actuality of the Trump economy?

Dominic Green, PhD, FRHistS is Culture Editor of Spectator USA and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.