If you watched even a few minutes of cable TV news on Friday, you could almost catch a whiff of gunpowder emanating from your flat screen -- and you heard the word “bombshell” more often than a night of Dick Cheney “shock and awe” over Baghdad. A “game-changer” was the other phrase that got tossed around frequently as TV’s talking heads struggled to dissect a report from Buzzfeed News alleging that federal prosecutors had evidence that President Trump had “directed” his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations for a Trump Tower Moscow during the heat of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Indeed, if anything else happened Friday -- killer floods, a new “murder of the century” -- the nation would not have heard about it. The implication was that Buzzfeed’s report was the “smoking gun,” the one thing that would end Trump’s presidency, even if some viewers couldn’t help but wonder why that line wasn’t crossed with Trump’s firing of FBI chief Jim Comey or the revelation of the June 2016 Team Trump-Russia confab at Trump Tower NY or Cohen pleading that Trump “directed” a felony campaign-finance violation. Then, at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the real chaos erupted.
The special counsel’s office led by Robert Mueller -- with a penchant for speaking in public somewhere between Greta Garbo and Marcel Marceau -- shocked journalists with a statement that said elements of the Buzzfeed article are “not accurate,” although it wasn’t clear if that meant the sourcing of the information or the entire premise. (Buzzfeed News is defiantly standing behind the article.) After that, the Buzzfeed affair devolved into a Rorschach test for how one perceives Trump, the Russia scandal, and the media. The Team Mueller statement was certainly a chance for the president and his allies to crow about “fake news.” The Trump Resistance take was a) the oddly worded Mueller denial didn’t necessarily mean the essence was wrong and b) to recall a famous 1972 Watergate incident in which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were also attacked as “fake news” for a mistake in an article that would soon be swamped by the proof of Richard Nixon’s massive corruption.
In other words, there was probably some wishful thinking on all sides. The only thing most Americans can say with certainty as the Buzzfeed incident still reverberates is that citizens don’t really know any more now than we did last Thursday on the question that increasingly consumes the nation: Is our president a crook? It’s a good time to take a step back and talk about some deeper issues around the American moment we’re living through -- and the outsized role that we’ve given to Mueller and his investigation.
I believe the Buzzfeed article generated such a media frenzy not only because of the explosive nature of the allegations but because The Establishment -- Beltway insiders in the media and on Capitol Hill, even a growing number of Republicans -- is coming to realize what more than half of everyday citizens have known for exactly two years, that Donald Trump is not fit to serve one additional day as our president, and that the risk accelerates with each day he remains in the Oval Office. It’s an existential crisis for the American Experiment that runs much deeper than Trump and Russia (or “Rusher,” as Trump might say) and that many in the D.C. crowd are, in fact, complicit in. And yet no one knows how to get out of this mess. The idea of Trump caught red-handed committing a “high crime” was their easy way out, and Mueller is their deus ex machina.
Let’s stipulate right now that America is in the midst of overlapping crises that are worse, arguably, than anything we’ve seen since 1861, and that the question of Trump’s criminality -- while a vitally important one -- is only one piece of the puzzle.
America is facing a political crisis -- with major chunks of the federal government now shut down for a month with no end in sight, with 800,000 workers struggling to get by, with many of them working for no pay in a nation that supposedly abolished slavery 154 years ago, and with Trump not able to end the crisis as long as he’s in thrall to right-wing talk radio hosts.
America is facing a moral crisis -- as shown by families seeking the legal right of asylum instead getting ripped apart at the U.S. southern border, with thousands of children held in inhumane tent cities or even cages, or by the growing number of hate crimes from coast to coast, like this week’s “Make America Great Again” harassment at the Lincoln Memorial of a proud Native American hero, in a nation where simply chanting the president’s name (“Trump! Trump! Trump!”) is now a symbol of white supremacy.
America is facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence -- thanks to the growing, impossible-to-ignore evidence that a president who was elected with an assist from an often-adversarial in Russia may in fact be an agent, consciously or unconsciously, of that foreign power who is consistently advocating policies that aren’t in the best interest of the United States yet somehow benefit Vladimir Putin.
America has faced down a lot of big crises in its history. Over just the last 100 years, think about moments like the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, or Watergate. We survived those crises through both the strength of our institutions (New Deal legislation, civil rights legislation, the Supreme Court ruling on Nixon’s tape) and the moral courage of everyday citizens who marched in places like Selma. But with the monumental crisis of the most dangerously unqualified president in American history, the institutions that solved the problems of yesteryear have instead helped get us here -- a corrupt, complicit and cowardly Congress, a politically warped judiciary and an numbed electorate that’s been “entertained to death.”
And so our nation has turned its lonely eyes toward Robert Mueller, who plays right into every all-American Gary Cooper myth that a tall, silently stoic cowboy can ride into a lawless town and mete out frontier justice. The Mueller myth has only grown over the 20-months-and-counting of his slow, methodical, secretive investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, Team Trump’s collusion with Russia, a possible White House cover-up, and related matters. Congress and other key players have used the existence of the Mueller probe as an excuse for inaction on the dangers posed by Trump. But Friday’s chaos should have been a wake-up call for the nation. America cannot Mueller its way out of its problems.
Mueller worship has blinded the majority of Americans who oppose Trumpism to some fundamental truths. Among those is the reality that Mueller and his team aren’t perfect and occasionally reek of arrogance. Whatever emerges about Buzzfeed’s original reporting on Michael Cohen, Mueller’s aides could have acted better both when contacted prepublication and in their vague statement Friday night. (And Big Media is showing its embarrassing tendency to defer to authority by giving all the weight to Mueller’s statement even as Buzzfeed aggressively stands by its reporting.) More importantly, Team Mueller is -- nearly two years into this -- excessively secretive, as we’ve seen from pages after pages of thick black redactions. No one truly knows when Mueller might issue his final report, or whether the public will even see it.
Journalism is under fire today, but the foundational premise of investigative reporting is that it abhors a vacuum -- whether that vacuum is a small town city hall that’s serving real-estate developers instead of the public, or the American political system punting on evidence that the president of the United States may have committed high crimes. Journalists from Buzzfeed News, McClatchy, or other newsrooms are aggressively trying not just to get inside the Mueller probe but the underlying evidence because the public is demanding answers that we’re not getting answers from anywhere else in the system.
I understand what the growing network of legal beagles who’ve become TV and internet stars say about this -- that Mueller is playing it by the book, and that releasing any information before every "i" is dotted and "t" is crossed might not only jeopardize future convictions but risk undermining the authority that Mueller’s final report would need in order to convince such a politically polarized nation. But the legal-industrial complex that takes over TV every night consists of carpenters looking at every Trump problem as a nail to be hammered by the criminal-justice system. Meanwhile, the public is starting to feel the tension between Mueller’s tortoise-like probe and the crisis at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that is rapidly spiraling out of control.
Think about Watergate. Yes, there were robust criminal investigations by special prosecutors Archibald Cox -- fired in the notorious “Saturday Night Massacre” -- and Leon Jaworski that convicted more than 40 people, including an attorney general and the White House chief of staff, but that wasn’t what took down Richard Nixon or helped America get beyond the scandal. Instead, it was a combination of nationally televised public hearings where citizens saw the key players -- especially White House counsel-turned-whistleblower John Dean -- for themselves, and then a thorough (and also public) impeachment process where Nixon’s sins were debated by Democrats and Republicans. Yes, it was a different time. There was more trust in the media, less partisan trench warfare among the public, and a lot more courage, especially from Republicans willing to break from their party.
But it’s time to acknowledge the problem with the Mueller probe -- that it’s not going to get America out of this mess. The only thing that can do that is an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, a process that will be not secretive but transparent, not legalistic but democratic in its nature.
This week, the Atlantic published a remarkable piece by historian Yoni Appelbaum that lays out the case for the impeachment process to begin. He argues that some mythology about the way that the major impeachment inquiries of the past -- Nixon, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson -- played out has blinded us to the essential role that an impeachment process can play in airing a crisis like the current mess, even if the ultimate outcome is not Trump’s removal from office.
The crux of Appelbaum’s argument is this powerful paragraph. “It is absurd to suggest that the Constitution would delineate a mechanism too potent to ever actually be employed. Impeachment, in fact, is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses. And, crucially, many of its benefits -- to the political health of the country, to the stability of the constitutional system -- accrue irrespective of its ultimate result. Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.”
Until this month, Republican control of the House -- and their fealty to the Trump-Fox talk radio axis -- made that a mathematical impossibility. Now that Democrats control the lower chamber, it is imperative that they conquer their decades of political timidity and exercise their Constitutional duty -- to investigate the president’s fitness to complete his term. And these investigations should be conducted largely in public, in the same manner as the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings. News that Cohen will testify in public in early February is only a start. The American people demand -- and deserve -- much, much more.
Let’s stop waiting for Bob Mueller to come down from the mountaintop. It’s time for the American people, our leaders, and our battered system to relearn how to climb that mountain ourselves.