Robert Mueller
Credit: James Ledbetter/Flickr

How should the Democrats respond to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the special counsel report? First and foremost, with relief. Had Robert Mueller found evidence that Trump conspired with the Russian government and obstructed justice, the political and societal convulsions would very likely have led to unpredictable, and thus potentially catastrophic, results for our republic.

Feeling relief, of course, implies there was reason to feel anxiety and fear and suspicion. Donald Trump provided plenty of good reasons to feel all those things, both intensely and simultaneously: his cringing submissiveness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin; his firing of James Comey and flippant admission that he did it with the Russia probe in mind; his constant lying about financial ties with Russians and business interests in Russia; his surrounding himself with white-collar thugs and criminals; and so much more.

Relief, however, cools the mind and might allow us to begin reassessing our explanations for Trump’s behavior. We can now bury the narratives of Trump-the-Manchurian-Candidate, Trump-the-Criminal-Mastermind, Trump-the-Russian-Agent, and only partly bury one version of Trump-the-Evil-Genius-Political-Operator. There are plenty of other explanations that remain valid, including the one I most favor: Trump-the-Bumbling-Fool who is also Trump-the-Money-Grubber.

Allow me one paragraph of self-satisfaction. I’ve repeatedly, albeit not in a comprehensive or especially thorough manner, expressed skepticism that the Mueller report would amount to much of anything. My New Year’s Resolution for readers and pundits counting on a “smoking gun” from Mueller was to prepare for likely disappointment. “If two years of investigating the hardened imbeciles that populate Trumpland hasn’t yielded anything, then the truth must be something more complicated. My bet is that it’s something more farcical than we could’ve imagined.” I noted an amusing little episode of Russia-connected political corruption in France that bore some similarity to our own situation and concluded that it “should give those true-believers of a deeply coordinated conspiracy between Trump and the Putin regime pause. It really all might be as stupid as this.” The last thing I wrote on the subject still has a lot of potential explanatory power: “What is often held up as further evidence of a deep conspiracy—like Trump going to ‘extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’—is more easily explained as the behavior of someone who is trying to put out the flames licking at his presidency.” (Ok, I’m done dancing in the end zone.)

I don’t watch cable news; I don’t know anyone my age or younger who even has a cable hookup, much less watches the news shows. Cable, I guess, is one of those clear generational dividing markers between the (relatively) young and everyone else. Apparently, it’s also a dividing marker between the professional political commentariat and the actual work of thinking for oneself. It has been from secondary sources that I generally understand what the programming on MSNBC has entailed for the past two years: over-heated, over-hyped, uncritical speculation bordering on conspiratorial hysteria. That these descriptors could also be applied to scores of people whose only job is to think and write about politics gets at my point.

This is politically painful for Democrats. Trump and his allies will use the report to delegitimize other unrelated (but likely more important) investigations—emoluments, campaign finance violations, potential laundering of Russian oligarch money via Deutsche Bank and real estate deals, and Trump’s tax returns. But the pain need not last long. It’s a good thing, a very good thing, that Mueller’s investigation has concluded so far ahead of the 2020 election. It removes the temptation to lean on the investigation as a campaign issue, and it will force candidates and the party to actually lay out a comprehensive case for why they should be the governing party. Finally, we can get back to real politics.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at