WASHINGTON — I was at the dentist getting a tooth drilled at the start of Robert Mueller’s comparable experience on Capitol Hill. I am the kind of person who cringes intensely while watching anyone fail in a public and humiliating fashion. So it was just as well that I missed the beginning of Mueller’s halting, unsure performance and the Twitter reaction of typical ruthlessness.
It was a failure conducted with a code. As a criminal justice professional, Mueller clearly did not want to say anything that served a political agenda, so he said almost nothing at all. It is galling that a president without discernible ethical standards benefited so decisively from Mueller’s conception of his own standards. It is also disappointing, because Mueller was mistaken. He had a public responsibility to summarize and explicate the findings of the report he was charged to prepare. As it was, Mueller undermined the careful work of his staff and deprived the electorate of an accurate and useful synopsis.
Mueller was never going to say something new at his hearings. But the old information remains as damning as ever. By way of reminder: Though the report did not demonstrate a criminal conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign, it recounted a serious level of cooperation. Donald Trump publicly urged the Russians to get and release dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump campaign officials welcomed a meeting on the assumption that Russian intelligence operatives would provide that dirt. Russian operatives eventually did hack damaging information from Clinton associates, and released that material on a schedule designed to help the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, people in the Trump circle maintained suspicious ties to the Russian government in the hope of making money for Trump himself.
Trump and his associates thought that the public revelation of their cooperation with the Russians would be politically damaging, so they sought to hide it. Trump wanted to directly disrupt the investigation of these ties by firing the special counsel, according to the report, and was only prevented from doing so by the timely intervention of staffers. And Trump attempted to pressure prospective witnesses to make them less cooperative with the Mueller investigation. Though Mueller did not think it was legally appropriate to bring charges of obstruction of justice against a sitting president, he pointedly refused to exonerate Trump from obstruction. In the end, the report said: “Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
This is the key word: “corrupt.” People may disagree on the criminality of these actions by Trump and his associates. But to deny that these actions constitute corruption is to lose contact with reality and morality. A poor performance by Mueller did nothing to change this.
But something did end during the Mueller hearings, at least for me. It was the death of the deus ex machina — the hope that a G-man of mythic abilities would decisively intervene on the side of good and save the honor of the country. If asked, I would have never admitted such a hope. I knew the verse: “Put not your trust in princes.” But I invested a great deal of trust in Robert Mueller, who is the living repudiation of the shoddiness and shallowness of the Trump era.
Yet politics seldom works in this way. A democratic country is generally not saved by the virtues of a single man but by the composite character of millions of principled citizens.
This is particularly true in the Trump era. For many of us, the greatest damage Trump has wrought has not come from violations of law; it has resulted from his destruction of democratic norms and culture. It is the blinding snowstorm of his lies, which undermines the very idea of a political truth. It is his compulsive cruelty toward migrants, refugees and anyone who defies him, which has excused and encouraged dehumanization. It is his increasingly unvarnished racism, which is reopening some of the deepest wounds of our history.
Can this kind of damage be reversed? It is an open question. If it can, it will not come by the application of the law. It will come through the repudiation of Trumpism by the public. Democratic ills must be healed by democratic means. When politics is contaminated by hatred and cruelty, our ritual of renewal is a national election with a decisive result. And that means the savior is us.
Michael Gerson served as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001-2006 and is a columnist for the Washington Post.