Can the Mueller re­port pro­vide any res­o­lu­tion?

Com­ing to a pol­luted political land­scape

The Buffalo News - - MONEYSMART - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

Robert Mueller’s fi­nal re­port should present Congress with a clean choice: Ei­ther the facts war­rant im­peach­ment of Pres­i­dent Trump, or they don’t. That was the promise of Mueller’s ap­point­ment as spe­cial coun­sel: He would gather the ev­i­dence, and then Congress and the public could judge.

In a coun­try with a healthy political sys­tem, Mueller’s re­port would lead to such a con­sen­sus. But we don’t live in that coun­try.

In­stead, con­gres­sional Democrats seem to want it both ways. They ar­gue that in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Trump should con­tinue (and even ex­pand) af­ter Mueller fin­ishes, but not nec­es­sar­ily through a for­mal, dis­ci­plined im­peach­ment process.

The Repub­li­cans, mean­while, are con­tin­u­ing their ru­inous cam­paign to in­ves­ti­gate the in­ves­ti­ga­tors – fur­ther un­der­min­ing public con­fi­dence in the FBI and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Devin Nunes as­ton­ish­ingly said Sun­day on Fox News that with­out such a “full scrub ... you’re go­ing to see gen­er­a­tions of con­ser­va­tives who will not trust the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, they will not trust the FBI.” That sounded al­most like a call to in­sur­rec­tion.

Con­tin­u­a­tion of our na­tional fever dream – all Trump, all the time, with no res­o­lu­tion un­til an in­cen­di­ary 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – can’t be in any­one’s in­ter­est, ex­cept Trump’s. He lives to dom­i­nate the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion in this way, with a daily spasm of anti-elitism, me­di­a­bash­ing and self-love. We’re all his en­ablers, Fox News and MSNBC watch­ers alike.

Ideally, Mueller’s re­port would bridge ex­ist­ing dif­fer­ences. Parts of it will prob­a­bly dis­ap­point each side in the de­bate: He may find less ev­i­dence of a crim­i­nal con­spir­acy be­tween Trump and the Rus­sians than MSNBC-world had be­lieved, but more ev­i­dence of de­lib­er­ate, con­tin­u­ing ef­forts to ob­struct jus­tice than Fox-world wants to ad­mit.

Un­for­tu­nately, Trump’s game of chicken with Mueller (and GOP ac­qui­es­cence) al­most guar­an­tees di­vi­sion rather than unity. Rather than co­a­lesce around Mueller’s find­ings, par­ti­sans are likely to cherry-pick the parts of the re­port they like and ig­nore the rest. In this sense, the Mueller re­port may prove yet an­other demon­stra­tion of what so­cial sci­en­tists call “con­fir­ma­tion bias,” in which peo­ple ac­cept facts that af­firm the views they al­ready hold and screen out the rest.

Con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of lies is a kind of re­verse alchemy; it turns pre­cious gold into dross, or sim­ply makes it im­pos­si­ble to tell the dif­fer­ence.

Think of the false­hoods that have be­come em­bed­ded in the public mind: Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate email server was a se­ri­ous felony, pun­ish­able by prison; the four Amer­i­cans killed in Beng­hazi in 2012 were vic­tims of an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion con­spir­acy; the Iran nu­clear agree­ment was the “worst deal ever ne­go­ti­ated,” even though (un­like Trump’s North Korea pact) it halted a nu­clear pro­gram; NAFTA was the “worst trade deal ever made,” even though Trump’s own re­write made only mod­est changes. Each lie has been shown to be false, yet each per­sists.

Mueller’s re­port will land in a pol­luted political land­scape. In­creas­ingly, no­body seems to be­lieve any­thing that comes out of Wash­ing­ton – which, per­versely, was the over­rid­ing aim of the Rus­sian covert-ac­tion pro­gram that Mueller was tasked to in­ves­ti­gate.

Per­haps Mueller could ac­com­pany his re­port with the equiv­a­lent of in­struc­tions to the jury: Congress and the public need to un­der­stand what crimes the spe­cial coun­sel is al­leg­ing and which ones he de­clines to pros­e­cute. They need guid­ance about how to weigh the ev­i­dence. Most of all, they need ad­vice on whether the facts war­rant im­peach­ment.

If Congress de­cides against im­peach­ment, this case will go to the public in 2020. That will be a rau­cous and un­wieldy jury, just what the Founders feared, but per­haps it will be the only venue left.

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