During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was nicknamed “Teflon Don” because the horrible things he said or did left his poll numbers untouched. He even bragged about being able to shoot someone in public and get away with it. During the two years of the Trump presidency, he became increasingly unbridled, seemingly confident that living by “his gut” outweighs efforts to hold him accountable.
A different picture emerges at the end of summer 2019. The unsinkable Trump Titanic struck an iceberg called Robert Mueller whose damage did not seem fatal because it was not immediately visible, but the water is pulling irresistibly the ship down.
The hiring of William Barr as a damage control officer kept Republicans in Congress from jumping into lifeboats, reducing their chances of survival. The Mueller Iceberg is also amplified by the emergence of “Cool Hand” Nancy Pelosi whose team rips more gashes into the ship’s structure and rescues torpedoes for a dramatic end to a malignant presidency.
There are three important lessons from history which are now becoming evident to the media which hastily devalued Mueller’s work. These lessons flow from Mueller’s approach to the report, Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, and the Nixonian republicanism that produced Donald Trump.
Mueller investigation and report. The historic role of Robert Mueller and his exceptional team will be increasingly appreciated by our nation sooner than expected. His job seemed disappointing at first because he was cautious and restrained. In short, he avoided many risks. It could have been recommended indictments of the president and members of his family and business.
How was Mueller risk-averse? First, he didn’t follow the money. Trump has established a “red line” to investigate his finances and Mueller has not crossed it, although cases have been referred to other investigators. Second, he did not extend the investigation by issuing a subpoena to force Trump to testify in person. Two important conclusions were clear, so the special adviser’s job was concluded in a way that did not justify Trump firing him. What has gone unnoticed is that the end of Mueller’s investigation did not end Trump’s vulnerability in areas Mueller ignored.
Third, the conclusion that a criminal conspiracy with Russia could not be proven is inconclusive. Mueller demonstrated unethical and illegal activity, but did not have “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” to present to a jury. Why? Due to Trump’s success in obstructing the investigation even though Mueller was not fired. Mueller stuck to what he could prove at the time. He did not find Trump and his campaign innocent. The obstruction won’t always prevent the truth from emerging – and anyone betting on Trump’s innocence is a very foolish gamer.
Why Mueller risk-averse? Presidential obstruction, increasingly aided by Republicans in Congress, posed a daily threat to the investigation. Focusing on the essentials and working quickly were clear priorities that Mueller managed to achieve. The point is, Mueller was able to investigate a president who actively involved a hostile power in his campaign and, as president, favored that enemy over our allies and clear national interests. This is astonishing fact, especially in light of the overwhelming cowardice of the Republican majorities in Congress. This kind of investigation could not have been carried out in Russia, China or Turkey.
Impact of the report. Presidential obstruction, aided by an attorney general serving the president rather than the nation, appeared to dull Mueller’s effectiveness. The media and many Americans were hoping for dramatic news – torpedoes that would detonate the Trump presidency. Events are showing that icebergs are more efficient. Torpedoes can miss, hit the wrong target, fail to explode, or misfire and sink those who shot them down. Icebergs make it impossible to ignore self-inflicted damage.
Pelosi leadership. How is it that a relatively soft-spoken woman is the most formidable adversary Trump has ever faced? I think, more than the difference in style and ability, the answer lies in genuine and fraudulent US political values based on the lessons of the New Deal and WWII. The values of the New Deal seek to bring all parts of American society together, working to overcome historical divisions of geography, class, gender and race. The global focus on human rights since 1945 also extends the values of the New Deal internationally as being essential to our national interests.
Tyranny against participation. Donald Trump ranks with Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon as the worst bullies in presidential history. His idea of strength is based on dominating supporters and opponents with exaggerated attacks that become more exaggerated when they are wrong. The result is force by “dividing and conquering”, gaining conformity among Republicans through intimidation, and unleashing the dangerous emotions of the crowd among its electoral base.
The makeup of the Democratic caucus in the current House of Representatives reflects an America different from that of Trump supporters. How is it possible to unite and lead such diverse and conflicting interests – which reflect so much tension in our country – through restraint and participation. Cool Hand Nancy has clarified her strategy and is sticking to it while remaining open to the changing realities within the caucus. Strong leadership in establishing leadership comes with restraint when criticized by caucus factions.
Let Trump flow. I think Pelosi’s strategy is working. Don’t waste torpedoes until you know they’ll finish the job. The strategy of having Mueller testify just before a long break sounds foolish to the media, but can turn out brilliant. Representatives and Senators will meet with voters in August. Expect September and October to raise public awareness about the Trump Titanic.
Nixon’s legacy. In a recent interview, Jill Wine-Banks, a member of the Watergate prosecution team, said Trump would have already been arraigned without FOX News. His remark pointed to an unrecognized way in which Trump had come from unrenewed supporters of Nixon’s crime.
Roger Stone’s ongoing trial is expected to demonstrate how Trump embraced unrepentant Nixon supporters and their determination to rekindle a form of republicanism that most Americans thought was dead. Reviews of Roger Ailes’ life also show how Republicans have embraced overt propaganda as a political strategy to get revenge on Nixon. No wonder Trump sees Russian and white nationalist propaganda as useful in combating legitimate reporting. Next year, the resurgence of Nixonian crime among Trump supporters may come to light and may become one of the biggest benefits of Mueller’s iceberg.
Sinking the Trump Titanic will not remove all the corrupting influence of money and divisive politics. We will always have to be on our guard against those who will inevitably want to resurrect and profit from the “sunken treasures” of the Trump Titanic.