Asterisks

For the better part of two years, President Donald Trump and his partisans did everything they could to denigrate and discredit Robert Mueller and his investigation.

They’re not done yet.

“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue,” the president tweeted Friday morning. He went on to denounce the “Report” for containing statements that “are total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad).”

So the Mueller report is now, in the official White House version, “total exoneration,” except when it’s “total bullshit.” Got that?

In June 2017, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, long a skeptic of Mueller’s probe, offered the central argument for why an investigation was necessary. “Russian meddling in U.S. elections is a serious matter and Americans need to know what happened,” they wrote. “If Mr. Trump or key associates canoodled with the Russians to steal an election, then he must face the likely consequence of impeachment.”

That’s exactly right. And it’s why an investigation by a partisan-controlled House or Senate committee would never have sufficed, either for the purposes of establishing the facts or affording the president the vindication he now claims. Would, say, the “Nunes Report” have convinced anyone who wasn’t already planning to vote for Trump that no collusion had taken place? Would a decision by the president to fire Mueller in 2017 — as he very nearly did — have allayed suspicions, much less put the matter behind us?

Only Mueller, with his reputation for probity and credibility among Democrats, could have prevented the collusion narrative from achieving the status of unshakable faith among millions of Americans, akin to the false “Bush lied, people died” narrative that still dogs the 43rd president. That required the no-stone-left-unturned approach manifest in the long investigation and 448-page report. Anything else would have been dismissed as a whitewash.

So why aren’t conservatives grateful?

From the beginning of the investigation, conservatives have been invested in a counter-narrative that is as flawed as the collusion narrative itself. This has various elements, from Trump’s repeated attempts to cast doubt on Russian interference, to the belief that the investigation had its genesis in Christopher Steele’s salacious dossier, to the equally spurious idea that there can be no obstruction of justice without an underlying crime — a point that ought to be obvious to anyone who supported impeaching Bill Clinton for lying under oath about a noncriminal act.

Most absurd: The claim, repeated Thursday by Attorney General William Barr, that the White House fully cooperated with the investigation. For more on that, read the part of the report where then-White House counsel Don McGahn opted to quit instead of participating in the firing of Mueller.

“He called his lawyer, drove to the White House, packed up his office, prepared to submit a resignation letter with his chief of staff, told [Reince] Priebus that the President had asked him to ‘do crazy shit,’ and informed Priebus and [Steve] Bannon that he was leaving.”

Here’s what conservatives have largely failed to acknowledge: Trump’s absolution by Mueller didn’t come about because his intentions were innocent but because his aims were thwarted or his methods were incompetent.

If his own staff hadn’t blocked him from firing Mueller, he would have done so. If Don Jr. had been delivered a crate full of stolen Clinton documents at that Trump Tower meeting with a shady Russian lawyer, he would have taken it. If The New York Times hadn’t exposed Paul Manafort for taking illicit cash from Ukraine’s president, he might well have wound up as a senior U.S. official vulnerable to Russian blackmail. If the Senate hadn’t blocked Trump from easing sanctions on Russia, or public opinion hadn’t revolted over his performance at Helsinki, he would have cozied up to Vladimir Putin.

Trump is the guy who keeps getting saved from walking into oncoming traffic, only to complain that someone yanked his collar. This makes Mueller the latest in a long list of figures whose scrupulousness saved Trump from the consequences of his unscrupulousness. For this, the special counsel will get no thanks from the president, much less an apology from all the two-bit talking heads who spent the past 23 months questioning his motives and impugning his integrity.

The good news in all this is that the rule of law and reason still functions in the Age of Trump — despite Trump. Responsible officials checked a dangerous president. Political pressure allowed Mueller to finish his report and ensured its release. Americans got a comprehensive presentation and analysis of the facts, which may have exonerated the president legally but which clearly indict him morally. Ultimately the matter will be settled at the polls in November 2020.

The system, as they say, worked. Conservatives who claim to believe in that system should be grateful they didn’t get their wish when they sought to tear it down.

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Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.

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Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times.

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