Opinion

What did the president do and when did he do it?

Russia investigation outcome approaches

President Donald Trump at the Capitol on the night of his State of the Union address earlier this month. Is Trump the political equivalent of Harry Houdini? Shapiro is skeptical. (Doug Mills/The New York Times POOL PHOTO) 

OPINION — Both CNN and The Washington Post ran stories Wednesday stating that Robert Mueller will deliver his secret report to the Justice Department next week or soon thereafter. While prior predictions of Mueller’s schedule have had the accuracy of a Revolutionary War blunderbuss, the latest timetable makes intuitive sense.

Mueller must be keenly aware of the errors that James Comey made with his interventions during the 2016 campaign — and March 2019 is far from the 2020 Democratic primaries, let alone the presidential election. William Barr, whose work with Mueller dates back to the late 1980s, is now installed as attorney general. And, of course, Democrats are wielding the gavels in all House committees.

As Garrett Graff points out in Wired, the form that the Mueller report could take ranges from a rich novelistic narrative like the Starr Report to a simple letter to the attorney general stating that the investigation is completed and no further charges will be filed.

In truth, the more likely outcome is a legalistic middle ground that explains Mueller’s prosecutorial decisions and offers a roadmap for future proceedings against the president and his closest advisers, including family members.

Even though Barr during his confirmation hearings consistently balked at promising that he would release the full Mueller report, efforts to shroud it in bubble wrap will probably fail. Whether the report is successfully subpoenaed by House Democrats, leaked to the press, emerges from unsealed court documents or is summarized by Mueller himself in congressional testimony, voters will almost certainly know the hidden secrets of the investigation sometime this year.

Then what?

It would be one thing if Mueller has unearthed a contract and a photograph of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, surrounded by 2013 Miss Universe contestants in Moscow, celebrating their agreement to collude to elect a reality-show host as president.

While both Mueller and Trump have — in distinctly different ways — displayed an endless capacity to surprise, it strains credulity to believe that anything that overt exists in the files of the independent counsel.

More likely, but far from certain, is that Mueller has assembled a complex daisy chain of evidence that points to the conclusion that Trump or his immediate family played Russian Roulette during the 2016 campaign. And Mueller may have unearthed major new evidence about Trump’s efforts to thwart the Russia investigation beyond his known threats, tweets and Oval Office bluster.

Watch: 18 times Trump mentioned WikiLeaks

Would such findings move the needle?

Commentators such as CNN’s Chris Cillizza argue, “No matter what is in the Mueller report — literally, NO MATTER WHAT — it won’t change the minds of most people following the story.” (The Trumpian capital letters are Cillizza’s.)

This can be summarized as the “even nuclear war with Denmark won’t change Trump’s numbers” theory. The idea is that the president’s nonstop attacks on Mueller, the FBI and virtually every law enforcement official this side of sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, have taken their toll. Everything in the Mueller report would be seen through a partisan lens.

But I am skeptical that Trump is the political equivalent of Harry Houdini, an escape artist who would emerge snarling even if Mueller chained him in a cage under water. I prefer to believe that there are Republicans who will abandon Trump much as their predecessors bailed on Richard Nixon.

When the Mueller report comes out, I will be watching orthodox Republicans like Lamar Alexander, who has announced that he will not be running for re-election to the Senate in 2020. Already, Alexander is taking advantage of his political independence with a statement describing Trump’s trumped-up declaration of national emergency as “unnecessary, unwise and inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

Alexander also has a unique perspective on presidential misconduct as the last veteran of the Nixon White House holding major political office. Lamar! — as he called himself during his two failed presidential bids — prudently resigned as a youthful Nixon aide to return to his native Tennessee before Watergate.

Watergate also carries historical resonance for Larry Hogan, Maryland’s moderate GOP governor. The governor’s father, Larry Hogan Sr., was among the six Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who in 1974 voted for Nixon’s impeachment.

As Hogan contemplates a primary challenge to Trump in 2020, the governor’s decision may be shaped by the tenor of the Mueller report. A strong case by the special counsel may prompt Hogan to uphold family tradition by challenging a badly tarnished president of his own party.

Democrats will also face a choice if the Mueller report offers many troubling and tantalizing revelations but (to stick with the Watergate argot) no “smoking gun.” Obviously, there will be strong pressure from within the party — especially from the presidential contenders — to begin immediate impeachment proceedings.

But enough congressional Democrats — particularly those who are not making weekend trips to Iowa and New Hampshire — remember the political folly of the GOP’s heedless vote to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998. Unless Mueller’s findings are unequivocal, prudence may call for House Democrats to hold lengthy investigative hearings to build an ironclad case for removing the president from office.

If Mueller’s from-Russia-with-love report is indeed being written at this moment, we know what the dominant political questions will be all through 2019. “What did the president do and when did he do it?”

Walter Shapiro  has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.