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The Illusions and Delusions of the Mueller Investigation

Cohen is cooked. Manafort is manacled. But Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into the Trump administration feels increasingly like an endless quest on a road to nowhere. Is it a wild goose chase or the most meaningful news story in the world? And when will we know?

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On Monday, Robert Mueller accused Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of lying to the FBI. By lying, Mueller wrote in a court filing, Manafort has invalidated his guilty plea deal with the special counsel. Lacking the leniency afforded from that deal, Manafort is headed to prison for a long time. So, too, is Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, who on Thursday pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the president’s business in Russia.

Trump says he might pardon Manafort. “I have great respect for what he’s done,” the president says. But Trump calls Cohen “a weak person” who is “lying” and “trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me.” Trump insists on his innocence, as he always does when Mueller is in the news; but this week, Trump has complained about him with a fury and urgency suggesting a low point in his tolerance for the investigation — an investigation that the president could terminate, though at his own peril.

Trump can do whatever he wants. Congressional Republicans can do whatever they want. There were crimes, and now there are patsies, but no one can say for sure whether Mueller’s investigation will destabilize the angry man at the top.

Throughout his investigation, Mueller has ruined a few indecent men. He’s prosecuted Manafort and Cohen, who will never work in their respective towns again. He’s indicted popular conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, linked to the president through the notorious Roger Stone. Indeed, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign is a rogue’s gallery on the wrong end of all those “lock her up” chants they parroted two years ago. Manafort, Cohen, Corsi, Stone, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page — these hacks all became recurring nightly news concerns because their own persecutions might ultimately — terminally — undermine Trump.

Mueller poses a unique and peculiar threat to Trump’s presidency. The special counsel’s quasi-holy authority persists even as Trump routinely taunts and defies him. There’s no Democrat who threatens Trump as credibly as Mueller, a registered Republican, does. Former FBI director James Comey briefly enjoyed folk hero status as he clashed with the president in the months after his firing. Stormy Daniels, too, antagonized Trump with crucial gusto. Daniels and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, were rare figures who could hold their own against Trump in the press and on Twitter, but they also suffered from the news media’s inevitable distraction from their story lines. Only Mueller persists through all news cycles. He is the specter who haunts Trump’s political moment. He is the messiah who might overthrow the U.S. president with a criminal court filing. Trump often refers to Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.” Publicly and privately, he fumes. On any given day, Trump may seem to be one signature away from terminating Mueller’s investigation; but such a startling intervention might amount to obstruction of justice, thus proving hilariously counterproductive. So Trump waits.

Mueller’s fearsomeness owes largely to his investigation’s exhaustive but otherwise mysterious nature. Famously, Mueller’s team doesn’t speak or leak very much to the press; and yet the news media, plus social media, produce reams of counterfeit insight about the special counsel. For two years now, MSNBC has become Charlie Kelly’s whiteboard. In July, Jonathan Chait published an 8,000-word fan fiction — which New York magazine ran as a cover story — speculating wildly about Trump’s Russian escapades. Three weeks later, Chait wondered why left-wing “Russiagate skeptics” might find all this fan fiction exhausting, stupid, and, worse yet, pointless. “A theme of their skepticism is a sense of frustration with the way the Russia investigation cuts across the electorate, and especially the political intelligentsia,” Chait wrote, characterizing his critics at Slate, Jacobin, and Splinter as programmatically resentful of center-left and center-right factions, regardless of the truth. But Russiagate doesn’t just unite the left and right behind some measure of opposition to Trump — it unites the left and right in ludicrous faith, disproved a thousand times over in just three years, in the political institutions that failed to halt Trump’s rise in the first place and then at countless checkpoints between then and now.

Mueller’s investigation is precise in its prosecutions but abstract in its larger importance. Basically, it’s about Russian hackers and the Republican stooges who encouraged them; but then it’s also about Trump having fired Comey; it’s also about WikiLeaks; it’s about presidential power; it’s about the Trump enterprise, really. The central question is whether Trump and his 2016 campaign courted illegal Russian assistance to sabotage — and win — a U.S. presidential election. In his guilty plea, Cohen suggests Trump also meant to leverage his presidential campaign, win or lose, to advance his business interests in Russia. In any case: collusion. But Mueller’s investigation elides any distinction between Trump’s political operation and his for-profit business. Trump financed his own presidential campaign; the two worlds are intertwined. Trump whines about Mueller’s scrutiny, which, for whatever it’s worth, should indeed worry him to death. After all, Mueller prosecuted Manafort for some fraudulent Ukrainian business predating the Trump campaign.

But of course Robert Mueller can ruin Michael Cohen, a nobody so far as the political order is concerned. Hardly anyone who follows Mueller closely is uniquely interested in the fate of Cohen, Manafort, or Corsi. They’re interested in them only as witnesses who might testify against Trump in the only trial that matters. The thought that such a trial will happen belies some delirious but enduring belief, most common among centrists and righteous Republican politicians, in disputable elements of the U.S. Constitution and magical powers supposedly wielded by the marshal of the Supreme Court. The fantasy bears little resemblance to the reality of post-Trump politics, which has repeatedly, with cruel frequency, dispelled all of these pretenses while sparing Trump any real consequence for countless indignities, however well chronicled and proved. The New York Times has investigated Trump, too. The new Democratic majority in the House will investigate the Trump administration to no end. The scrutiny does rattle the president, but it’s also underscored the political limits of accountability. It’s not about what Congress and the Justice Department find. It’s about what Congress and the Justice Department do. Congress has declined to protect Mueller from Trump’s influence, which now overwhelms the Justice Department. Arguably, Trump is winning the war.

Still, Trump really does seem to fear Mueller — though there are other ways to interpret the president’s hotheaded posture toward the special counsel’s investigation. Trump undermines Mueller through his dominant mode: polarization. In 2016, Trump and the rest of the GOP politicized the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails in order to transform a boring story about bureaucratic protocols into a catastrophic left-right division. Trump has had a harder time turning congressional Republicans against the special counsel’s investigation; too many conventional Republicans believe in Robert Mueller. But gradually — inevitably — Republican voters have come to doubt Mueller’s investigation. Quite possibly, the Republican base will pressure Republican leadership to resist Mueller’s conclusions.

Mueller may very well charge Trump with the highest possible crimes. And then what? There’s no legalistic threshold for impeachment, and there’s no strong consensus about the criminal justice system’s ability to prosecute a sitting president. Under Trump, the rule of law is too illusory and chaotic for anyone to say, with any certainty, how any constitutional drama will even begin to play out. But the very last thing a U.S. citizen should expect to see is the swift and decisive arrival of any conventional justice.