And on the 118th day, they relaxed.
For a passing moment on Wednesday night, there was a note of calm in Washington. The median national blood pressure dropped a few ticks. It seemed possible, for the first time in nearly four months, that “the system” — the good part of it, the rule of law and institutional control — might be, you know, working as intended.
The threat of a constitutional crisis is not dead, but it seems farther off than even a day ago. We’ve asked the experts — once, then again — and for all the drama and challenges, the separations of powers many feared was at risk, is holding its ground. And thus, Robert Mueller.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of the former FBI director to act as special counsel overseeing the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia did not go over well with the President. After an overnight of restraint, he railed against the decision on Twitter Thursday morning.
“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” he blared.
Trump’s ire in this particular instance is beside the point. It’s hardly news. If we can pull the proverbial camera back for a moment, there is a larger narrative to consider — larger than Trump and Russia, than Trump and Comey, than Trump and his sundry enemies. If the last four months have been a near daily stress test on the guardrails of American democracy, the selection of Mueller, made independently of the White House, felt like news of a passing grade.
What comes of his new probe, to be conducted independently of the DOJ, is anyone’s guess. Trump and his associates might well be exonerated. If it breaks the other way and yields something darker, then that, too, will be dealt with in its course. This won’t be pretty or conclude quickly.
Suspicions will linger among the most acutely partisan no matter what Mueller finds. But what truly matters here is that the truth, or at least an independent nonpartisan interpretation of it, seems destined to meet the daylight. Trump, as made clear in his recent remarks, is leaving the door open to dismiss the findings as part of a “witch hunt,” but the pressure to get to the bottom of the Russian election meddling scandal and any possible collusion between Russian agents and his associates has already proved stronger than the political incentive to slow or stop it.
Even then, Mueller is not the full story. He’s been welcomed by both parties as a hero, but his emergence is more meaningful when understood as a symptom rather than a cure. For all the President’s bluster, his open admiration for authoritarianism overseas, he has not initiated a constitutional crisis.
That’s not to say the path here has been an smooth one. This is not uncharted territory, but it is, at the least, an unpaved road. Trump has attacked the judges who, from their federal benches, are blocking his travel ban. He has ranted at length about the alleged avarice of his political opponents. Mistreatment by the media was a cornerstone of his campaign and, as president, his criticism — and reported desire to jail pesky journalists — has only escalated.
But the “enemy of the people” gets credit here too. If Congress has at times failed to fully embrace its responsibilities (see: the tale of Rep. Devin Nunes and his late night taxi), the free press has been unrelenting. The First Amendment means different things to different people. But it’s not simply about being able to say what you want or worship as you please. It exists, perhaps foremost, as a check on power.
Simply stated, without the dogged investigative reporting that has produced so many startling revelations about the White House, from Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia to the Comey memo, over the past weeks and months, it’s hard to believe the Justice Department would have acted.
This is not the end of the story. If history is any indication, it’s more like an opening chapter. Special prosecutors have a way of landing far afield of their initial charges. But if the DOJ makes good on Rosenstein’s promisew in the letter appointing Mueller, the odds seem tilted in favor of an full and fair resolution.