It was a long day, and there was much more to read than there was time to read it. There were readings branching off the reading, and readings of the remarks that had preceded the reading, and of the remarks that had followed the reading, and under it all the dense black lines of what still couldn’t be read. It was exhausting, and exhaustion is easy to mistake for the end of things.
Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, wanted it to be the end. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” he told Dana Bash of CNN. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment.”
What the opposition party was waiting for, it seemed, was some neutral third party to certify that what everyone saw happening was, in fact, what was happening.
Eighteen months is three-quarters of Hoyer’s elected term. But this was the same cowardice the Democratic leadership has been pushing since it got control of the House: defer judgment, and defer judgment, and then regretfully say there’s not enough time to judge. The Mueller report established that Donald Trump had abused his powers of office for the sake of obstructing justice, every bit as much as Richard Nixon had, but there was no real shock to it. Most of Trump’s abuses had already been covered in the press, or revealed in Mueller’s earlier indictments, or performed by Trump into a live microphone with cameras running; what the opposition party was waiting for, it seemed, was some neutral third party to certify that what everyone saw happening was, in fact, what was happening. Instead, the neutral party had referred it back to Congress, and the attorney general, William Barr, had denied even the fact of that referral, and the House majority had to choose between staging a fight which it might lose, or surrendering unconditionally and hoping that, a year and a half into the future, the public would declare the surrender to have been a victory.
What was the press supposed to make of this non-resolution? Susan B. Glasser had the unenviable duty, for the New Yorker, of reading the report and watching the news cycle and trying to turn it into a definitive and writerly account, to fit the magazine’s aim of being a Newsweekly for the Ages. Most of her piece ran through the cascade of atrocities, as atrocities: “Barr sounded like Trump’s lawyer, not his Attorney General”…“a breathtaking culture of lying and impunity”…“a thorough and careful legal document showing high-ranking officials of the U.S. government refusing to obey orders from the President because they believed them to be improper or outright illegal”…“[t]he President himself comes across as a mobster”…“Trump lied to his staff. He yelled at them. He hid things from them.”
But then format and venue required her to come up with a conclusion, some sort of big thought to wrap up everything that had been unwrapped. The report, Glasser wrote, had never established what the real meaning of the Trump campaign’s mutual affinity with Russia was. She continued:
Nor, sadly though predictably, has any of this addressed the bitter partisan divide in American politics, which now seems all but irreversible. As some journalists were sputtering in outrage on Twitter about the behavior documented in the report, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, was on the White House driveway picking up the spinning where Barr and the President’s lawyers left off. Being cleared of charges, she said, guarantees the President’s reëlection in 2020. The day had turned into a predictable Rorschach test of partisan and tribal loyalties. In Trumpworld, vindication meant his guaranteed reëlection; to the President’s critics, the report was damning, devastating, an impeachment referral, a congressional call to arms.
Instead of clarity, Washington quickly settled into second-guessing everyone about everything. Mueller was blasted by legal analysts for failing to issue subpoenas and compel testimony from Trump and Trump’s kids. Barr was blasted for his misleading press conference and public statements. Trump and his advisers were called out by seemingly every reporter whose story was ever incorrectly labelled “fake news” by the President. Democrats were second-guessing other Democrats who didn’t think they should pursue impeachment. Republicans were second-guessing those who predicted Mueller would produce evidence of a massive conspiracy and coverup. “TOLD YA!!!” Trump’s son Don, Jr., tweeted. In its cryptic triumphalism, his tweet seemed to sum up the state of the spin cycle perfectly. Everybody would claim to have been right, while insisting that everybody else was wrong.
It was the journalistic equivalent of Steny Hoyer, desperate to get back to business as usual. The Republican president had welcomed the help of a foreign government in sabotaging his election opponent. He had lied and fired people to protect himself. The attorney general, a loyal lifelong Republican, was defending him against the Justice Department’s own investigators. The Republican Senate majority was standing by the president. And the problem, in Glasser’s estimation, was “the bitter partisan divide in American politics,” a matter of “partisan and tribal loyalties.” Both sides were to blame.
This sort of weary, rueful attitudinizing is an old New Yorker tic, as much as the fussy little diereses on “reelection.” The situation described by the Mueller report, and by Glasser’s own writing, is only a “partisan divide” in the sense that one political party has chosen to operate the federal government as a personality cult around a corrupt authoritarian president, for the sake of driving the other party into the ground. It’s a constitutional emergency. Every day of it is worse than the day before. An exquisite shrug—Washington: what can you do?—isn’t a gesture of neutrality. It’s acquiescence.