The United States has a collective action problem. Not just the most obvious one, of high-ranking members of the Donald Trump administration persistently failing to act while in office and then publishing I-told-you-so memoirs or sniggering onstage at public fora about the president’s unfitness. No, the problem is also at the most micro level, and at sweeping constitutional levels as well. The prevailing ethos seems to be that so long as there is somebody else out there who is capable of Doing Something, the rest of us are free to desist. And for the most part, the person deemed to be Doing Something is Robert Mueller.
Given reports that the Mueller investigation might come to a close any day now, we may soon find ourselves in the middle of the acid test of this proposition. There’s a lingering perception that once Mueller delivers his report, the Trump era will end in a cloud of white smoke and glitter. It’s a nice fantasy—the one in which Mueller, armed with Truth and Fact, finishes off the Trump presidency with a ride through the Capitol on a white unicorn, scattering indictments and the seeds of impeachment, in a conclusive and irrefutable wrapup of the two-year probe.
It is also profoundly unlikely to actually happen that way. As one observer after another has reminded us, this is not necessarily Mueller’s call, and it’s not necessarily Mueller’s mandate. It’s also, perhaps most importantly, not necessarily Mueller’s style. At every turn, Mueller has shown us who he is, and that would be the antithesis of the Trump-style reality show protagonist. He’s been almost impossible to spot and is decidedly uninterested in the spotlight. Whenever he has faced the choice between grandstanding and dutiful drudgery, he’s opted for the latter. His public filings tend to be understated. His signature appears on only a few. He is never seen in public, to the point that it is frustrating photo editors at news organizations. He doesn’t tweet or do press conferences or give comment. As Kevin Johnson and Bart Jansen put it:
His prosecutors have brought charges against 34 people and three companies including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; his first national security adviser, Mike Flynn and his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. And outside of court filings, they’ve had nothing to say about any of them. When the team won a jury verdict after a three-week trial against Manafort, prosecutors retreated to their offices rather than appear at a clutch of microphones outside the courthouse. Asked by email if they had any comment, Mueller’s spokesman responded with a single word: “Nope.”
If any one man singlehandedly undermines the Great Man theory of American history, it might by definition be the guy who wants no attention, credit, fortune, or fame from this gig. He may also be the only powerful person in Washington, D.C., who has no plans to parlay his government service into a cable news perch, a cookbook, or to launch a line of handbags. It would not surprise me if Mueller did the Muellerist move of all time, which would be to drop a minimalist report on Bill Barr and then ghost.
Which brings us back to the collective action problem. For those who have been collecting the Mueller memes and the T-shirts and the mugs, and who are waiting breathlessly for his conclusions, there’s a very reasonable chance that major disappointment looms. The Mueller report is unlikely to provide a perfectly binary call to arms. He is amassing facts on a limited series of questions. Some of those facts will make their way to the public, but many will not. Congress will make decisions on how best to proceed. There is going to be a torrent of “no collusion/fake news” out of the White House. What comes next may not be perfectly certain.
Instead of “waiting for Mueller” to take action, we should perhaps realize that we largely know what’s happened: Four people who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign have either faced conviction or indictment for their involvement with Russian actors, or for lying about it. There’s a case to be made that Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. could face charges. It’s surely true that should any such thing happen, life will grow infinitely more complicated for the Trump administration.
But it’s also true that this administration has thrived in part because too many people have been waiting for Robert Mueller to formally say what we already know to be true: The levels of corruption, conflict of interest, and untruth in this administration are without parallel. What we saw at Helsinki was without parallel, what was done to Jamal Khashoggi and the refusal to address it is without parallel, threats of “retaliation” against the press are without parallel. We don’t need to read this in a report. We live it every day.
This very human hope that Mueller will package up the case for legal action is perhaps most troubling because Mueller’s report won’t be an action plan; it will be a set of facts that then need to be acted upon. But as the series of lawsuits filed to question the constitutionality of the president’s patently pretextual declaration of a national emergency at the border make clear, each of the two remaining branches of government with constitutional obligations to act as checks on an out-of-control president may themselves continue to follow the script they’ve relied on throughout this presidency—and instead opt to avail themselves of their constitutional prerogative to do absolutely nothing. A Republican-controlled Senate may remain supine. A Supreme Court may issue abstract rulings about executive power.
We want Mueller to be both the guy who knows everything and the guy who does everything. It obviates anyone else from needing to know what we already know and do what needs doing. But going into the next few fateful days, my sense is that we might want to stop investing too much hope in great men, and superheroes, and saviors. Instead, we should remember that it is our job to insist that we, and our public officials, must be the Muellers we hope to see in the world.
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