Robert Mueller’s testimony before two Congressional committees in Washington on Wednesday was the very embodiment of why the Democrats are at risk of handing the 2020 election to President Donald Trump.
The hearings went exactly as expected, to the point that Mr. Trump tweeted his gratitude to the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives and forced Mr. Mueller to testify, for holding them.
The disobliging Mr. Mueller only confirmed what was already known: that his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible collusion on the part of the Trump campaign, did not “exculpate” Mr. Trump.
There was a brief moment of excitement when the former special counsel appeared to say, in response to a convoluted question, that he would have indicted Mr. Trump were it not for a Justice Department policy against charging a sitting president. But Mr. Mueller later clarified that he misspoke, and only meant to say that “we did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime," robbing the Democrats of a killer headline.
That kind of headline is what Democrats are desperate for. They crave a home run, something so damning that the President’s re-election becomes a legal impossibility.
But Wednesday’s hearings were reconfirmation that Mr. Trump will not be charged with a crime this year or next, at least not any charges related to the established fact that members of his family and campaign team were eager to accept information from Russian state actors aimed at the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
It is also impossible to imagine him being forced from office through impeachment, something a vocal minority of Democratic Congress members want to see happen. Were the Democratic-controlled House to impeach Mr. Trump, it is a certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to acquit, gifting him with the gold-plated opportunity to boast that he was innocent of yet another “witch hunt.”
This quest for a smoking gun, for irrefutable evidence of criminal wrongdoing followed by an unstoppable legal indictment, amounts to magical thinking. Yes, the President flirts with illegality in his amoral and inappropriate words and actions, and yes he has summoned forth the dark forces of racism in his bid for re-election, but wishing for lightning to strike him down won’t make it happen.
The only way to get Mr. Trump out of office is to convince enough Americans to vote for his Democratic opponent in 16 months from now. That is what anyone who wants Mr. Trump returned to private life must focus on.
That means the Democrats must reach out to swing voters in swing states, some of whom cast their ballots for Mr. Trump in 2016. There is no way to win in 2020 without them.
That in turn means talking about the issues they care about, from health care (they want better insurance and lower drug costs) to immigration (they don’t want open borders, but neither are they comfortable with Mr. Trump’s abusive policies and racist rhetoric) to the United States’ place in the world.
Mr. Trump is vulnerable on all those scores. In fact, his only real asset is the strength of the economy, which is a fickle ally. Other than that, he has done nothing but display cruelty, weakness and megalomania in addressing core issues.
Children are being separated from their parents at the border, his administration is cutting benefits for the poor while exploding the deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy, he has launched tariff wars with trading partners, he has estranged democratic allies while embracing despots, and Iran and North Korea are still security threats.
There is also ample evidence of his racism, self-dealing and erratic behaviour. No one needs a court ruling to tell them what kind of a man he is.
In short, there is enough ammunition to convince swing voters that the Democrats are the better choice in 2020. They don’t need a miracle – such as the fantasy that, if they invited Mr. Mueller to testify, he would abandon the careful wording of his own report, point to Mr. Trump and yell: “J’accuse!”
The Democrats are not alone in wanting to see this President get his comeuppance. But they are the only ones who can deliver it. They should abandon their wishful thinking and start doing the hard work of convincing U.S. voters that they can do better than Mr. Trump.
Otherwise, he will still be President five years from now.