During the presidential campaign of 2016, Donald Trump was called “Teflon Don” because the horrific things he said or did left his poll numbers undamaged. He even bragged that he could shoot someone in public and get away with it. During two years of the Trump presidency, he has become increasingly unrestrained, seemingly confident that living by “his gut” overpowers efforts to make him accountable.
A different picture is emerging as the summer of 2019 ends. The unsinkable Trump Titanic hit an iceberg called Robert Mueller whose damage hasn’t seemed deadly because it wasn’t immediately visible, yet water is irresistibly pulling the ship down.
Hiring William Barr as damage control officer kept congressional Republicans from jumping in lifeboats, thus blowing their survival chances. The Mueller iceberg is also being amplified by the emergence of “Cool Hand” Nancy Pelosi whose team is ripping more gashes in the ship’s structure and saving torpedoes for a dramatic end to a malignant presidency.
There are three important lessons of history that are in the process of becoming evident to media outlets that hastily devalued Mueller’s work. Those lessons derive from Mueller’s approach to the report, from Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, and from the Nixonian Republicanism that produced Donald Trump.
Mueller Investigation and Report. The historical role of Robert Mueller and his outstanding team will be increasingly appreciated by our nation sooner than most expect. His work seemed disappointing at first because it was cautious and restricted. In short, he avoided many risks. There could have been recommended indictments of the president and members of his family and business.
How was Mueller risk-averse? First, he didn’t follow the money. Trump set a “red line” at investigating his finances and Mueller didn’t cross it, although cases have been referred to other investigators. Second, he didn’t extend the probe by issuing a subpoena to force Trump to testify in person. Two important findings were clear, so work of the Special Counsel was wrapped up in a way that gave no justification for Trump to fire him. Something that has gone unnoticed is that ending Mueller’s investigation hasn’t ended Trump’s vulnerability in the areas that Mueller passed up.
Third, the finding that criminal conspiracy with Russia could not be proved is not conclusive. Mueller demonstrated unethical and illegal activity but lacked “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” to present to a jury. Why? Because of Trump’s success in obstructing the investigation even though Mueller was not fired. Mueller kept to what he could prove at this time. He did not find Trump and his campaign innocent. Obstruction will not always keep the truth from emerging – and anyone who bets on Trump’s innocence is a very foolish gambler.
Why was Mueller risk-averse? Presidential obstruction, increasingly aided by congressional Republicans, posed a daily threat to the investigation. Focusing on essentials and working quickly were clear priorities that Mueller succeeded in carrying out. The fact is that Mueller was able to investigate a president who actively involved a hostile power in his campaign and, as president, favored that enemy over our allies and clear national interests. That is an astonishing fact, especially in light of the overwhelming cowardice of the Republican congressional majorities. This kind of investigation could not have been accomplished in Russia, China, or Turkey.
Impact of the Report. Presidential obstruction, aided by an Attorney General serving the president rather than the nation, appeared to blunt Mueller’s effectiveness. Media outlets and many Americans were hoping for dramatic news – for torpedoes that would explode the Trump presidency. Events are in the process of demonstrating that icebergs are more effective. Torpedoes can miss, hit the wrong target, fail to explode, or misfire and sink those who shot them. Icebergs make it impossible to ignore self-inflicted damage.
Pelosi’s Leadership. How is it that a relatively soft-spoken female is the most formidable opponent Trump has ever faced? I think, more than the difference in style and ability, the answer lies in authentic versus fraudulent American political values based on lessons of the New Deal and World War II. New Deal values seek to bring all parts of American society together, working to overcome historical divisions of geography, class, gender, and race. Worldwide emphasis on human rights since 1945 also extends New Deal values internationally as essential to our national interests.
Tyranny versus Participation. Donald Trump ranks with Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon as the worst bullies in presidential history. His idea of strength is based on dominating supporters and opponents with exaggerated attacks that become more exaggerated when shown to be false. The result is strength by “dividing and conquering,” gaining compliance among Republicans by intimidation and unloosing dangerous mob emotions among his voting base.
The makeup of the Democratic caucus in the current House of Representatives reflects a different America from the supporters of Trump. How is it possible to unite and lead such diverse and conflicting interests – which reflect so many of the tensions in our nation – through restraint and participation. Cool Hand Nancy has made her strategy clear and she sticks by it while staying open to shifting realities within the caucus. Firm leadership in setting direction is joined by restraint when criticized by factions in the caucus.
Let Trump Sink. I believe Pelosi’s strategy is working. Don’t waste torpedoes until you know they will wrap up the job. The strategy of having Mueller testify just before a long recess looked foolish to the media but may turn out to be brilliant. Representatives and Senators will meet with constituents in August. Expect September and October to bring awareness the Trump Titanic is beyond rescue.
Nixon’s Legacy. In a recent interview, Jill Wine-Banks, a member of the Watergate prosecuting team, said that Trump would already have been impeached if not for FOX News. Her remark pointed to an unappreciated way in which Trump emerged from unregenerate supporters of Nixon’s criminality.
The pending trial of Roger Stone should demonstrate how Trump embraced unrepentant supporters of Nixon and their determination to revive a form of Republicanism most Americans thought was dead. Examinations of the life of Roger Ailes are also making clear the extent to which Republicans have embraced overt propaganda as a political strategy in seeking revenge for Nixon. No wonder Trump sees Russian and White Nationalist propaganda as useful in combatting legitimate news reporting. In the next year, the resurgence of Nixonian criminality among Trump supporters may be revealed and could become one of the more important benefits of Mueller’s iceberg.
Sinking the Trump Titanic will not take down all the corrupting influence of money and the politics of division. We will always need to be on guard against those who will inevitably want to resurrect and profit from the “sunken treasures” of the Trump Titanic.