Holster the toy cannons, people. Cancel those refresher courses on the 25th Amendment.
For all the fireworks, grubby details and rageaholic outbursts at Michael Cohen’s Capitol Hill public testimony Wednesday, it took just 11 short words from the felonious fixer’s opening statement to ensure that our long national nightmare will not, in fact, soon end: “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress.”
So concludes last month’s momentarily tantalizing notion — originally reported by BuzzFeed, unprecedentedly disputed by the office of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — that President Trump “personally instructed” his thuggish capo to perjure himself. Some in Mueller’s carol-singing fan club had convinced themselves that his legalistic rebuttal of the story still left plenty of room for Cohen to deliver a knockout blow if he was ever allowed to testify in public.
A magic bullet is extremely unlikely to take out either Trump or Mueller.
Though you would go broke betting on the moral principles of congressional Republicans, if Cohen had the goods on the president suborning perjury it would have put even the most craven of GOP senators in a pickle in the event of an impeachment trial. Crudely coloring outside the lines during a campaign is one thing, knowingly committing a real crime as president would probably trigger a House vote.
Well, so much for that trigger. Like every previous “huge, if true” magic bullet that seemed like a promising derailer for the Trump presidency — former campaign chair Paul Manafort’s reported visit to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Cohen’s elusive meeting with Russkies in Prague — the suborning fantasy, too, failed to materialize. Implicit, wink-nudge encouragement of lies on top of lies about real estate negotiations with dodgy Russians amounts to tawdry behavior from a sitting president, but its damnably difficult to upgrade into the criminally explicit.
Although Trump had a lousy Wednesday — it came out that he allegedly asked his lawyer to threaten people on 500 separate occasions; reportedly got Melania on speakerphone to hear lies about Stormy Daniels; and we hear him impel members of Congress to serially say the word “shithole” — Cohen’s testimony also smacked down some of the more lurid anti-Trump fevers: The pee tape, a secret love child, domestic violence in an elevator.
So Americans are left, once more, in a position we seem to find uncomfortable: We will have to take charge of deciding how the president will be punished for his misdeeds. We cannot passively wait for some exogenous, without-a-doubt mega-revelation to do the deciding for us.
Such pining for a shortcut is hardly unique to Trump haters. His grossest apologists, several of whom were in midseason form barking about Cohen’s once and future book deals Wednesday, have spent the last 21 months overselling every fabulist Devin Nunes memo and FBI “secret society” rumor that comes across their desks, only to see those investigations scuttled.
I suspect there’s more to the daydreaming on both sides than mere partisan convenience. Imagining that some capital-F Fact can be irrefutably persuasive to either the criminal justice system or the public is an almost touching expression of rose-colored nostalgia for an agreed-upon set of national mores. Those who watched more than about 30 minutes of Wednesday’s spectacle can testify to the wishfulness of such thinking. With the exception of odd legislative ducks such as the libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Democrats and Republicans delivered telegrams from hermetically separated universes of fact, logic and interpretation.
But the real lure of a magic bullet is that it would let politician and voter wriggle off the hook. If our bizarre situation is all just a Deep State plot, or a criminal conspiracy involving a foreign adversary methodically exposed by an expert prosecutor, then we don’t have to do any heavy thinking about how we got here in the first place.
America has suffered — is suffering — a collective political trauma, in the midst of a globe-straddling mini-revolt against the post-World War II consensus governing how real democracies behave. Things are getting topsy-turvy: Republicans hate trade, Democrats love the CIA and pretty much everyone agrees that self-identified independents (see Howard Schultz) are the worst.
The easy way out intellectually is to just chalk up whatever the opposition is doing to a pathology: Democrats (and the #NeverTrump club) see a blob of racists and Russians; Republicans seethe at socialists, globalists and (ugh) journalists. If you can wipe out the bad guys with a single revelation of Fact, no need to recalibrate either your collectivist demonization of the “other,” or your own team’s role in paving the way for Trump.
The logic of extreme polarization militates against self-reflection. After all, there’s always a new social media ruckus, foiled North Korea peace pact or Trump tweetstorm to scream at each other about.
That’s too bad. Because the elites of both parties, and of the politically adjacent professions (including — yes — journalism), actively helped create the unhappy conditions that made fit-throwing look like an attractive option to millions of voters, and not just those who chose Trump.
A magic bullet is extremely unlikely to take out either Trump or Mueller. Even if it could, the maladies that made them antagonists would still be with us. We’ve got a whole lot of work to do.
Matt Welch is editor-at-large at Reason magazine and a contributing writer to Opinion.
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