The arc of the modern American life is long and bends toward a never-ending relitigation of 2016.
Any assumptions that talk of collusion and spying—and the need to remember how to spell Papadopoulos—would end following the release of Robert Mueller’s 400-page report have been rendered quaint in the past week. Republicans and Democrats alike have latched on to Mueller’s findings not as the final word on those topics, but instead as a springboard for ever more questions about them. This has been most obviously true of Democrats, some of whom maintain there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and some who argue that the president should be impeached on grounds of obstruction of justice. But as much as Republicans have crowed that it is time for lawmakers to move on and “get back to the business of governing,” many of them are itching for their own extension of the Mueller report: an investigation of the investigators.
The president’s defenders first suggested such an investigation in late March, after Attorney General William Barr released Mueller’s top-line findings. But in the weeks since, it’s become clear that this wasn’t a passing fancy: More and more, the GOP’s interpretation of what “moving on” means is for the Department of Justice to probe the Russia inquiry’s very origins—to investigate Republican allegations that top brass at the FBI and the DOJ cut corners in launching their inquiries of Trump’s campaign and presidency. As Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani put it to me, “The question will linger forever if we don’t find out the answer.”
Other than a cryptic comment during a Senate hearing that he was “looking into” potentially “improper surveillance” of the Trump campaign, there is no indication so far that Barr plans to open such an investigation. But it seems that Republicans will grow only more vocal in their demands for it—at least in part because they think it will help the president politically. On Friday, Trump himself tweeted that it was “finally time to turn the tables and bring justice to some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even Spying or Treason.”
Many Republicans in Washington stressed to me that there are substantive things to be gained from an investigation. One senior House Republican aide—who, like others I talked to for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank—told me it was important to many lawmakers that there be “accountability” for the likes of former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and the former agent Peter Strzok, whom Republicans have long accused of improperly investigating and surveilling the Trump campaign because of their personal bias. Offering an example, Giuliani told me that an investigation could help determine why George Papadopoulos’s conversation with an Australian diplomat—in which the Trump campaign staffer said he’d learned that Moscow had thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails—justified launching the Russia probe.
But Giuliani also suggested an alternative motivation that’s gaining a foothold in Republican circles: that an investigation would keep Mueller’s findings alive in a way that’s helpful to the president. When I asked him what investigating the investigators would ideally accomplish, he said, “Getting Jerry Nadler to be a household presence,” referring to the House Judiciary Committee chairman, who is leading one of the congressional inquiries into the president. Giuliani then added, sarcastically, “The more people see Jerry, the more they will love him. He’s so objective.”
Indeed, the more Republicans I spoke to for this story, the more obvious it became that their party’s pleas for Democrats to put Mueller behind them may be little more than lip service. One Trump-campaign adviser said that they are more than happy for Democrats to hold firm and continue broadcasting their opinions about collusion and obstruction.
One former White House official told me that an investigation would allow Trump-campaign staffers to frame their message in much the same way they did in 2016, claiming that “the system is rigged against them.” “Everyone needs a bogeyman, and this gives them something to hang on to,” the former official said. “I don’t know that everyone and their mother knows who Robert Mueller is, but if you told a Trump supporter that Democrats had used phony information to launch an investigation into their guy, it would absolutely fire them up.”
According to former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye, keeping the Mueller report alive—whether through calls for an investigation or simply by touting “no collusion”—could very well be useful to Trump. The 2020 election, Heye said, is going to be about “motivation,” not “persuasion,” meaning the Trump campaign has staked its success on motivating the president’s base to turn out rather than on persuading independents to vote Republican. For two years now, he said, Trump’s cries of a “witch hunt” have resonated well with the base; it stands to reason that pushing for an investigation of the “witch hunt” itself will too.
Moreover, added the Republican strategist Michael Steel, an investigation would likely be a plus for the president even if it didn’t turn up anything improper. “It will still provide endless fodder for discussion by the president’s supporters and continue to create a cloud of dust around the findings of the Mueller investigation that are damaging to the president,” Steel said. “As long as people in the media and on Capitol Hill are continuing to talk about the fallout of the report, they’re going to continue to have an interest in creating the impression that those investigating the president are not on the level.”
But this new refrain would not constitute a true reprisal of 2016 unless it included a tried-and-true GOP bogeyman: Hillary Clinton. Giuliani volunteered that if the DOJ failed to launch an investigation into the Mueller probe’s origins, most Americans would be left with the impression that the department “exists for the purpose of clearing Hillary Clinton”—meaning that investigators would rather continue to “cover up” their preference for Clinton (and cover up her alleged wrongdoing) rather than “be honest with Americans” about “why this all started.” All of which is to say that as the next presidential election draws nearer, much of official Washington remains stubbornly preoccupied by fights related to the last one.