Imagining Trump’s America Without Robert Mueller

With the Russia investigation complete, the special counsel’s fans and foes will have to grapple with a new world.

Kyle Grillot / Reuters

For nearly two years, the American public, and quite a few observers overseas, have hung on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s every word and action: each hire, each redaction, each revealing and yet opaque footnote in hundreds of filings. His fans have indulged in devotional candles and meme T-shirts. The document that Mueller delivered to Attorney General William Barr has been so eagerly awaited that its official name might as well be “The Highly Anticipated Mueller Report.”

This must be uncomfortable for Mueller, who shuns publicity, doesn’t seem to have much taste for politics, and has maintained a silence that is either admirable or infuriating, depending on your point of view. But his report could make things even more uncomfortable for many other people. For substantial parts of the political world, Mueller has been most useful as a cipher: a vessel for hopes and dreams, a shield to hide behind, or a nemesis to be attacked. With his work complete, each faction will have to grapple with a new world.

For the most fanatical Mueller watchers, the conclusion of the report is almost certain to bring disappointment, because anything but a presidency-ending indictment seems likely to fall short of their expectations. For Democrats in elected office and in the presidential race, the delivery of the report means they can no longer use the ongoing investigation as a reason (or excuse) for waiting to act against Donald Trump. Some Republicans have also pointed to the ongoing inquiry as a reason to withhold judgment. For Trump, the end of the probe will deprive him of a villain—and he has succeeded most when he has had a villain, and has flailed when he has not.

In practice, the nation has never known a Trump presidency without Mueller. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed the former FBI director on May 17, 2017, barely 100 days after Trump’s inauguration. Those first four months were eventful, to be sure, with the implementation of Trump’s travel ban, the exit of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, the firing of then–FBI Director James Comey, and a slew of half-forgotten controversies, from “alternative facts,” to the president’s decision to reveal classified information, to Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office.

But since Rosenstein appointed Mueller, in the messy aftermath of Comey’s abrupt firing, the relationship between the president and the investigation into him has defined American governance. It’s a curious, asymmetric fight: Trump has been incessantly vitriolic; Mueller and his team have been effectively silent outside of filings and court hearings. But the joust between the two men, one in the spotlight and one in the shadows, has shaped Trump’s approach to the presidency, often placing him on the defensive and distracting him from official business.

The joust has also shaped the approach of Democrats, especially those in Congress. The matter of how to deal with Trump is a delicate one. A strong though volatile majority of Democratic voters support impeaching the president. Yet many Democratic officeholders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, have expressed reservations about impeachment. They remember how the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton backfired on House Republicans, and they have concluded that the chances of the Senate convicting and removing Trump based on the currently available evidence are nil. As a result, they have mostly pursued a wait-and-see strategy, saying that impeachment isn’t currently a good idea, but leaving open the possibility that they’ll take that step at some point in the future—say, when Mueller’s report comes in, with, they hope, damning new evidence. They’ve also said they didn’t want to interfere with Mueller’s work, and will continue to focus on their own investigations into Trump and Russia.

If and when Mueller’s findings become public, however, Democrats will no longer be able to use his report as a reason to wait. Democratic leaders will have to deal with the pro-impeachment sentiment in their party, as well as with the many smoking guns already in plain sight. Yet their political qualms about an impeachment effort will likely remain.

John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University who worked on the Iran-Contra independent-counsel investigation, told me in a recent interview that it’s better for legislators to take the lead on Trump, because of the constitutional separation of powers.

“Prosecutors don’t act as fact-gatherers for Congress. Congress needs to gather its own facts,” Barrett said. “Congress has lots of tools—government oversight properly belongs to them.”

For Republicans in Congress, the effects of the Mueller investigation might be less acute, but they will be similar. Some Republicans have counseled a similar wait-and-see approach to what Mueller produces, and as a group, they’ve tended to downplay the seriousness of the existing evidence. They, too, will be forced to reckon with the president, though the shape and gravity of that reckoning will depend in part on what Mueller brings, and on the fruits of the nascent House investigations.

Trump has raged against Mueller repeatedly in public comments, calling the investigation a “witch hunt.” He has offered conflicting statements on Mueller’s report, tweeting on March 15 that “there should be no Mueller report,” but also saying that he’d leave the decision about releasing details to Barr. On Wednesday, he told reporters, “Let it come out. Let the people see it.”

But the president might find himself missing Mueller more than he expects. Trump has succeeded most in politics when he has had a nemesis to vilify: first Jeb Bush and then Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP primary; then Hillary Clinton in the general election. And he has struggled when he hasn’t had one. His attempts to use Pelosi as a foil failed, both in the 2018 midterms and in the shutdown fight that followed, with disastrous results for him. Mueller has been a useful villain, with Trump spreading lies and distortions about Mueller’s team and work (for example, calling the group led by Mueller, a lifelong Republican, “13 angry Democrats”).

For all of the effects on political actors, Mueller’s fans in the public might take the loss hardest. For this group, the special counsel has become a figure of messianic importance who will deliver the nation from Trump. Some view his promise in straightforward legal or political terms; some have taken it in stranger directions. In a rather more outré offering, Rachel Dodes wrote in Vanity Fair of having a crush on Mueller. “Beautiful Swan, I have to admit that back in the day, if a soothsayer foretold that I’d fall for the consummate G-man, I would have poured bong water on their head and vomited on their loafers,” she wrote. “Those were different times and, admittedly, I was a fool. In this moment of rampant debauchery and freeloading, your patrician uprightness, by contrast, seems almost radical.”

Despite the years of anticipation, experts predict that Mueller’s report is more likely to be a short summary than a long, devastating narrative à la Bill Clinton adversary Ken Starr. Nor is Mueller likely to stand before the nation and offer a resounding critique of Trump, as then–FBI Director Comey did in July 2016, when he recommended not prosecuting Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server but criticized her email practices. The conclusion of Mueller’s work will mean a loss of purpose and a new realization of the difficulty of removing a president, no matter how square the lead investigator’s jaw.

There are, however, two groups that will greet the conclusion of Mueller’s work with delight. One is people connected to the investigation who have escaped indictment and can begin to cut down on exorbitant legal bills. The other is the reporters who have been on constant high alert for weeks, expecting a report at any moment. None of the others—not the Democrats, not the Republicans, not Trump, and not the Mueller stans—is likely to feel any kinship with those relieved to see Mueller go.