America is having a bit of an Apollo 13 moment right now. In April 1970, a riveted nation spent several days fixated on the fate of three NASA astronauts whose Moon landing was aborted after an onboard explosion. The perilous trip home involved orbiting the dark side of the moon, which meant for a few tense hours there was no way to communicate with the wounded spacecraft or its crew.
Those anxious hours and the lack of information were not unlike the eagerly awaited completion of the Mueller Report on his investigation into Russian election meddling, the Trump campaign, and an alleged cover-up. This critical document on the integrity of our presidential election and the president himself spent a good chunk of this critical, anxious weekend orbiting the dark side of Attorney General William Barr’s briefcase, hidden from the public.
Apollo 13 and its astronauts returned to Earth safely. I’m not nearly as confident that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s term paper on American democracy will have such a safe splashdown.
As I write this, with Sunday morning coming down, it’s hard to know what exactly to say about our Mueller version of March Madness, a weekend-long orgy splayed across several TV channels with breathless announcers but nothing to report — a bizarre tournament where a make-or-break buzzer-beater was launched … but never came down. Without knowing whether it’s a three-pointer or a brick, it’s impossible at this moment to comment on the Mueller Report itself (not that that’s stopped an army of commentators on the far-right and the nihilistic far-left from trying to cast in quick-drying cement the unfounded claim that President Trump was exonerated.) But we’ve all watched the process — the 39 minutes and 58 seconds of the game leading up to this. And we can see how it’s failed so far. No matter what the final score, millions watching from their couches won’t trust the result.
That’s because the entire process of learning the truth about the 2016 election has constantly worked in opposition to the most basic, foundational principle of democratic government: That the public’s right to know is first and foremost. The original sin of the Trump-Russia investigation was the crazy notion that we’d be able to solve the crisis of American democracy with a tight-lipped Marlboro Man of a prosecutor working behind the locked doors of a grand jury room, and not in the sunlight of public hearings. Now, 26 months after Trump’s election, a comprehensive, detailed report finally exists, and yet as I write this, it’s still behind a locked door of a man, AG Barr, who was appointed by the key subject of the Mueller probe — after publicly questioning the investigation — and who, alone, is deciding how much the American people can see.
This is a farce. The public needs to see the entire Mueller Report … yesterday.
Over the last two-plus years, I’ve written more than several times on the echoes from the 1970s Watergate scandal that won’t stop reverberating around Trump’s presidency. Yes, that’s partly because of the obsessions that haven’t died since a 14-year-old politics geek watched the Nixon scandal unfold in real time. But mainly that’s because the underlying facts of the two scandals are so shockingly similar, even as the differences in how we’ve processed them demonstrate how the American Experiment is going bad after nearly 243 years.
Watergate started with a 20th-century break-in — a burglary — while Trump-Russia started with the 21st-century kind, a computer hacking. Incredibly, the prime target was the same in both cases, the Democratic National Committee. Both Nixon’s dirty tricksters and Putin’s hackers and Facebook scammers wanted to “rat(bleep)” an American presidential election. It’s interesting that neither Richard Nixon nor Donald Trump seems to have had advance knowledge of these specific break-ins — yet both men, and their minions, immediately went into full cover-up mode.
Team Nixon invented the term “stonewalling” but Team Trump took it to the next level, with three of the 45th president’s close aides convicted of lying about their Russia contacts. Nixon ordered interference with the FBI investigation of Watergate — and that was “the smoking gun” that ended his presidency. Trump fired his FBI director because of “this Russia thing.”
The elements of Watergate and Trump-Russia are the same, yet the laboratory of American democracy has been contaminated. The divergent paths became clear in the early months of each scandal. In February 1973 — even before key burglary figure James McCord went public with allegations of a cover-up — congressional leaders opted to hold speedy public hearings, nationally televised and aimed at airing the truth. The vote was unanimous and bipartisan — 77-0 — and the Senate Watergate Committee worked hard to ensure public testimony from most of Nixon’s top aides, despite the risk of jeopardizing criminal probes in their earliest phase. That’s because informing the public was seen as a greater goal than a courtroom verdict.
The process worked — in good measure because members of both parties asked the hard questions and seemed legitimately interested in the answers. Yes, Nixon had some die-hard defenders in the GOP, not unlike Trump today, but the senator who famously asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” was a Republican, Tennessee’s Howard Baker. The televised testimony from whistle-blowers like former White House counsel John Dean created the groundwork for something that seems unthinkable today: A consensus — not monolithic, but broad enough to hold the country together. When Nixon fired his attorney general and the special prosecutor in October 1973′s “Saturday Night Massacre,” the outrage was immediate and across the board. Nixon’s obstructions laid the groundwork for his 1974 removal — a message that was finally delivered by senators from his own party.
No such consensus is possible in 2019. In the early months of Trump’s presidency, any congressional investigations launched by the Republicans were rigged, with proceedings behind closed doors and witnesses who refused to answer questions (or flat out lied) and Republican representatives more interested in going after the FBI and career prosecutors than after the truth. Amplified by a pro-Trump version of state television known as the Fox News Channel, those lost two years in Congress ensured that the Mueller Report would drop on an American public that’s more divided and more angry than any moment since the Civil War. If the report isn’t released, half of the U.S. electorate won’t even care. And if it is released, it’s a safe bet that millions of Americans — maybe a majority — won’t believe what it says. That makes the “system worked” outcome of Watergate — vast agreement that a president abused his power — highly unlikely.
Simply put, putting Trump’s alleged wrongdoing before a prosecutor before it went before the public was a huge mistake. Robert Mueller was tasked largely with deciding what about Team Trump’s behavior could win a unanimous jury verdict from 12 people, not with determining what was right politically or morally. Now, more than two years into it, Democrats have gained control of the House and have launched the probe that should have happened in 2017. But the existence of Mueller’s report — and his decisions on whom to prosecute or not prosecute — will likely be used as a bludgeon by Republicans to discredit the hearings as a “witch hunt” into matters that have already been litigated. Trump is hoping to ride that persecution complex all the way to a second term, and after living through 2016, I’m not sure that it won’t work.
Forty-five years after Nixon’s downfall, we have a Congress that was too addicted to self-preservation to perform its basic function of executive oversight, a Beltway media too addicted to ratings (or Fox News’ weird power trip) to dig deeper, and a public too addicted to shouting at the TV or at each other on Twitter to do the hard work of demanding a better Congress, a better media — and a better president. And part of the problem, especially for those whose hearts and heads are in the right place, has been waiting for Bob Mueller to fix everything.
We absolutely do need to see Mueller’s full report, and learn whether it’s an exoneration or a sweeping small-"i" indictment of the president, or (most likely) something in between. But if and when we do, we need to read it with the clear-eyed perspective that it won’t undo the legacy of mistakes and erosion of democratic norms that brought us to this place, nor will it mitigate the hard work of fixing America that will last well beyond the 2020 election.