“Guys,” a friend said to me and some others recently, “do you know this song called ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen? It’s an amazing jam.” This is more or less what it would sound like if I attempted a summary here of the special counsel investigation that concluded a few months ago. My guess is that, like the title track to the Boss’s acclaimed 1978 album, Robert Mueller’s investigation is reasonably familiar to you.
But what about the sequel? Did you know that Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has decided to carry out an official review of the circumstances that gave rise to the Mueller inquiry in the first place — an investigation of an investigation, if you will? It, too, will be an amazing jam.
It will be, at any rate, if you’re somebody who’s already immersed in the wider Trump discography. It has just been reported that what was supposed to be a kind of managerial follow-up carried out by the department’s own inspector general — like those “How’s our driving?” signs on the back of semi trucks — has metamorphosed into a full-blown criminal investigation being overseen by John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut. The investigation could lead to both current and former officials at organizations ranging from the FBI to the CIA to the Justice Department itself facing charges.
Not real charges, mind you, in the murder-robbery-arson sense, but what the president’s fans and other Mueller skeptics (including yours truly) have called “process crimes”: lying under oath, failing to respond to nagging subpoenas, saying that you emailed John Doe on Tuesday, October 10, 2017, when it was actually three days earlier, perhaps even committing tax fraud many years before the matter actually under investigation while engaged in totally unrelated work on behalf of a different entity.
It is not clear what the timeline is for all of this, but the most serious possibility seems to be that someone either gave false testimony to Mueller’s team (you know, like Michael Cohen did) or deliberately offered erroneous information in the course of applying for a warrant under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2016.
It is entirely possible that no one will be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime as a result of what we might as well start calling the Durham investigation. Durham is a widely respected career prosecutor who has made his name in corruption and racketeering cases. He is unlikely to strain credulity in the hope of delivering the kind of results that Trump would prefer.
But suppose he did deliver. What would it mean if either or both of these things could be proved and a conviction secured? For Trump, it is easy to imagine an entire year on the campaign trail spent denouncing the numberless iniquities of some rando FBI agent, who will be presented as if he were the Palpatine-like mastermind behind a vast and rather sinister conspiracy to undermine the administration and the republic itself. He will spend 20 minutes rehearsing the details in Ohio and Pennsylvania; the crowds will shout “TREASON! TREASON!” or “LOCK THEM UP!” or “COMPLYING WITH FEDERAL INVESTIGATIONS IS A CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY, YOU GODLESS COMMIES!” or some such. A splendid time for all, I’m sure.
Meanwhile, Democrats will be able to follow the template established for them by Republicans in recent months. These, we will be told, are insignificant crimes in themselves, ones that would not have been prosecuted in the first place if their opponents were not grossly abusing their authority by carrying out a pointless investigation of things that happened four years ago now. Who cares what a few meaningless bunglers were or were not getting up to? All of this is a distraction from the real issue, which is the unspeakable corruption of Trump and his cronies, who are using the present inquiry as a smokescreen.
Both of these competing narratives — which are not really mutually exclusive — would find cheerleaders in the relevant corners of the media. The journalists who have spent Trump’s entire first term discussing the sacrosanct nature of federal probes would explain away the casual nature of the offenses; the president’s fans would insist that nothing could be more appalling than — gasp — lying to a bona fide Justice Department investigator.
Somewhere amid all this noisemaking, normal Americans might consider the fact that the 2016 presidential campaign managed to last longer than the actual first term of the man it elected.
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