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Reading the Mueller Report: a Series

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you just might find -- you know how to read.

Consider reading the report issued by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team before you post about it on social media, ok?

I understand why you wouldn’t want to read the whole thing through: it’s really long, repetitive and dull. But most of all, you will want to react before reading because you just wanted the Trump presidency to be over, right? You wanted Robert Mueller to make the case for why all those Trumps and Kushners had to go back to New York now; why Kellyanne Conway had to go back to her wreck of a marriage and either work it out or divorce George, for God’s sake; and why Donald Trump Jr. should get off Twitter and focus on re-upping his membership in the Hair Club for Men.

You wanted this so much you could taste it. You wanted it, even though it would mean watching Mike and Karen Pence, probably the  most personally forgettable and potentially politically destructive Second Couple since Dan and Marilyn Quayle, plod through two agonizing years of Christian rectitude. You wanted it, even though you knew it would have resulted in the appointment of even more judges who would eliminate all forms of public education and reproductive choice.

Of course you want to lard every social media platform you have with reactive and under-informed commentary. I understand what you are going through. It’s  reckless, it is destructive to our political culture,  but it feels right. Wanting Donald Trump gone tomorrow is perhaps the strongest feeling you have. That’s how all of us who found ourselves weeping on the street after Pennsylvania fell  to Trump on November 9 2016 have felt, ever since Robert Mueller was appointed two years ago, seeming to offer a way out of what has become a historically unprecedented shit show.

Even though Democrats have acted like the world is coming to an end every time a Republican is elected since 1968, I am with you emotionally. The first two years of Donald Trump have been more exhausting for me than the entire 67 months of Richard Nixon’s presidency. They have been more exhausting than that of any Republican president I remember, actually. I have learned in the past two years that it is much easier to accommodate to a conservative administration than to anxiety that all the political institutions that democracy relies on have become irrelevant. By comparison to Trump, the 12 collective years of Bush 41 and Bush 43 feel like an ancient, but gracious, civilization, where we on the left got to be righteously grieved, but highly focused, on injustices like AIDS, worldwide petroleum conspiracies, and illegal wars that were killing and maiming thousands of innocent people. Embattled though we were, it felt like our activism mattered.

Now it doesn’t, despite the fact that what appears to be a criminal conspiracy in the White House should be fairly easy to identify and dismantle.

But you know what? Historically, special prosecutors tend to be very bad at removing presidents, no matter how many reports they issue, or how unredacted those reports are. A special prosecutor cannot explain why we live in a country where Trump was ever nominated by the Republican party in the first place, an act of recklessness that the GOP will not recover from any time soon. Nor, in the end, if you were passionate about Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman president, will it help you get over the reality that somehow the person whose entire career had been minutely crafted to put her in the White House was brutally knocked off by someone who seems to barely have an education at all, and has allegedly built his career on prevarications, fraud, and outright lies.

Now there are those who still say today that Clinton did not lose that election – that it was stolen. I encounter them on Facebook all the time, and at cocktail parties. They are smart people, and good people. But they are not historians, and if they were they would know that stealing elections has been the American way for a very long time. Lyndon Johnson repeatedly stole elections on his way to the presidency, and that people who voted for Nixon in 1960 still believe that John F. Kennedy won by fraud. Stealing elections is the American way, and it’s time to admit that we did not see this one coming. Trump is more like other presidents in this regard than he is unlike them. As a nation, we need to face up to this.

The question is, what will happen next?

The work of organizing, and electing new governments is a slow business. There are no quick fixes, even though each person who turns on Trump is greeted on cable with the implicit expectation that be is the new John Dean. As lying liars Trump aides Michael Flynn, George Papadapoulos, and Robert Gates folded like wet Kleenex and cooperated, the hope was born again and again that maybe we didn’t need to vote Trump out after all. Maybe it could all be over, maybe Trump could be gone, as fast as you can say “perp walk.”

Well, no. That isn’t how it works. And now we have the Mueller report to tell us that that really isn’t how it works. I’ve seen the howls of rage about the Barr memo, and about the redactions in the report, and I’m here to tell you: this is how it works. Not because Attorney General William Barr is corrupt, although he may be for all I know; and not because the Trump White House is corrupt, because it certainly is, but because this is how the law works. Here, I think I disagree with my friend and colleague Jeff Isaac. Yes, there were many points of contact with many Russians: at various times, the Mueller report reads like an episode of the Cold War cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle, with no-goodniks Boris and Natasha falling all over themselves to gain a foothold in the Trump campaign (“Allow me to introduce myself! I am Clarence Darronov, attorney at law!”) But collusion would have required the Trump people to actually know what it meant to run a national political campaign, and how running for president was different from, say, blackmailing your sister and brother-in-law who are singing like canaries to a federal grand jury.

Venal and grasping as these people currently occupying the White House are, I am not sure that they did know what they were doing: wanting that to be true does not make it so. And whatever has happened in the almost 27 months since that Trump clown car drove through the White House gates, however many laws or norms were violated during the election, we are a country of laws. Please keep this in mind.

I understand the Mueller Report is a long and tedious document, with none of the fun and slightly weird sex stuff that the Starr report delivered. But if you have not learned anything from it, and it does not comfort your Trump-hating soul at all, you are not paying attention, and I am here to help you. Perhaps because some of my earliest training as a historian was translating texts from the Latin, there is no document that I find too boring to read; there are no lines I will not read between; and no redaction that I do not find intriguing and informative.

So, in the coming days, I am going to ask you to read the Mueller Report along with me. I am going to ask you to turn off your favourite cable news channel, and to stop retweeting the people on Twitter who have come to crude conclusions that confirm everything they believed before this two volume, 448 page behemoth, was issued.

Most importantly, I am going to ask you to pay attention to the importance of, not just what is in the report, but also what has been withheld from us for now, what information seeking appears to be ongoing, why some prosecutions have occurred and others (long hoped for) have not. I am going to explore what we can learn, not what we cannot.

It was never Robert Mueller’s job to remove the clown car from the White House: it was his job to identify what laws had been broken, and which of those cases should be prosecuted — both now and later. And it was never his job to write new laws to prosecute people who knew perfectly well what they were doing was wrong, but not, perhaps, illegal.

I’ve just handed you the first lesson to be learned from the report: when laws are broken, they do not always result in prosecutions. The corollary to that is that when evil things happen, they have not always been anticipated by the law, and thus cannot be prosecuted. That’s something we can do something about by passing new laws under a new President.

So, start reading, and return to this space later in the week to think about what the Mueller Report teaches us about why we need to regulate the use of social media in our elections.

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.

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