Robert Mueller, You’re Starting to Scare Me

Posted May 22, 2018 7:56 p.m. EDT

Imagine for a moment that Robert Mueller was never pressed into service as a special counsel and wasn’t a household name. Imagine that there had never been any prompt for his investigation — that Donald Trump hadn’t blown all those kisses at Vladimir Putin, that the stooges and grifters around Trump hadn’t swooned at the prospect of sucking on Mother Russia’s teat, or that there’d been no offer of milk in the first place.

What would we be focusing on right now?

Maybe the just-published Politico report of Trump’s deliberate, cavalier use of a cellphone that doesn’t have strict security safeguards would be getting extra attention. The story outraged me, because it’s yet another glaring example of Trump’s dual set of rules — proper ones that apply to others and nonexistent ones that let him and his clan do as they please — and it puts the lie to his supposed horror over Hillary Clinton’s sloppy email habits. Not for the first time or for the last, he’s being a raving hypocrite.

Without Mueller and Russia, Scott Pruitt would be closer to center stage, with an even brighter, harsher spotlight on him. He’s not exactly evading scrutiny, but he’s being spared the relentless top-of-the-screen, start-of-the-newscast treatment that he would likely endure if lawmakers, journalists and other watchdogs weren’t so mesmerized by the convoluted twists of Mueller v. Trump.

Perhaps more Americans would notice what Trump is doing to the judiciary, by which I mean stacking it, and to important government agencies, by which I mean gutting them.

In The New Yorker this month, Evan Osnos documented the politically motivated sidelining and purging of venerable public servants; the Interior Department under Ryan Zinke is operating with less maturity and mission than a kindergarten class on the cusp of recess. Sadly, I heard less chatter about Osnos’ story than it deserved.

Mueller and Russia, Russia and Mueller: This is the drumbeat, sometimes deafening and often drowning out all else. It’s the yardstick whose measurement has come to matter more than any other, the one test that Trump must pass.

What if he passes it? That won’t make him a successful president, a fit leader or even a decent human being. But it will permit a master of distraction to distract many Americans from his other misdeeds.

The longer Mueller soldiers on, the more I worry, and the duration is part of the reason. There’s a Catch-22 to these special-counsel extravaganzas: In order to be credible, they must be thorough, but in order to be thorough, they risk becoming unwieldy, appearing indiscriminate and taxing the patience and trust of voters to the point where they numbly tune out.

“Foreign threats to the stability of our political system should always be investigated,” Vanity Fair’s T.A. Frank wrote this week. “But the more some of us learn, the harder it gets to take each breathless headline seriously.”

He argued that a recently revealed meeting in the summer of 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and an emissary for two Arab princes only muddies the waters of a possible Russia-Trump partnership, adding, “One could go mad trying to prove that Donald Trump Jr. tried to collude with the Russians or the Saudis or the Emiratis, as opposed to being a dunce.”

Mueller’s journey down certain tributaries strikes even some observers who aren’t Trump partisans as invasive and punitive. His crawl and sprawl have also given the president the time and the trove of details that he needs to refine his tactics for delegitimizing the investigation. His shameless effort has evolved in sophistication from the reflexive yelp of “witch hunt” to more elaborate and alluring conspiracy theories, including the scenario of espionage within his campaign.

And Trump’s storytelling has takers. A CBS News poll several weeks ago showed that fewer Americans believed Mueller’s investigation to be legitimate (44 percent) than to be politically driven (53 percent).

By my reckoning, there’s already proof of attempted obstruction of justice, but that’s receding in a thick fog of collateral nefariousness and a teeming cast of unsavory opportunists. It may also be why Trump’s mantra is “no collusion,” “no collusion,” “no collusion.”

Contrary to what his aides reportedly murmur, he’s no idiot. He knows that if he sets the bar at incontrovertible evidence of him and Putin huddled over a Hillary Clinton voodoo doll, he just might clear it. And he knows that if Americans are fixated on collusion, they aren’t concentrating on much else. That’s good for him and terrible for the country.

He could be entirely innocent of soliciting or welcoming Russian help and he’d still be a proudly offensive, gleefully divisive, woefully unprepared plutocrat with no moral compass beyond his own aggrandizement. While we obsess over what may be hidden in the shadows, all of that is in plain sight.

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