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U.S. Politics When partisan dust settles, Mueller’s key finding may be security of presidential election process

Few reports in American history have shaped the country’s outlook and political landscape with the force of the Mueller report.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press

“Game over,” Donald Trump insisted. We’re going into overtime, Democrats responded.

The Republican President and his partisan rivals have agreed on almost nothing since the one-time real estate and casino tycoon moved into the White House and rearranged all the furniture of American civic life. So it was little surprise − indeed, it was completely predictable − that the report on possible campaign collusion with Russia prepared by special counsel Robert Mueller would prompt swift, passionate and deeply partisan reactions.

Indeed, Thursday’s competing furious responses to the Mueller report were but the latest affirmation of Miles’s Law, named for a bureaucrat in the Truman administration who provided perhaps the only reliable guiding principle of American politics. “Where you stand,” Rufus Miles posited three-quarters of a century ago, “depends on where you sit.”

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The Republicans will stand with their President. The Democrats will not sit still for a report that didn’t reach a conclusion on whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, the sole connective tissue between the 1974 House judiciary committee’s impeachment resolution against Richard Nixon and the 1998 House impeachment of Bill Clinton. And, because Mr. Mueller wrote that “we were unable” to clear Mr. Trump of the obstruction charge, it is now the most likely point of departure for new inquiries by newly empowered Democratic House committee chairs.

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Few reports in U.S. history − the Warren Commission’s report on the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Kerner Commission’s on the 1967 urban race riots, the 1975 Church report on CIA misdeeds and excesses, the Starr report on Mr. Clinton’s sexual liaisons in the White House − have shaped the country’s outlook and political landscape with the force of the Mueller report. As with the others, orders for bound printed copies in book form are already being processed.

This latest report will give new contours to the future of both the President and the presidency. It will crystallize views on acceptable leadership comportment. It will throw together Democratic presidential aspirants and pull apart Republicans who support Mr. Trump and those who deplore him as a deviant from conservative orthodoxy. It will form one of the major themes of the campaign now gathering in the packing houses, farm-implement factories and rural crossroads of Iowa and in the high-tech laboratories and mountain fastnesses of New Hampshire.

When the partisan dust settles − and that may take years − the most significant finding may not be on the conduct of the President, but instead on the security of the process that the United States uses to choose its president. The Mueller verdict is blunt and, had it been issued a generation ago, would have been a startling statement that would have given a new, deep and dangerous chill to the Cold War. “The Russian government," the report states flatly, “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

A country obsessed with national security clearly has not assured the security of its signature national philosophical characteristic − the notion that its affairs are conducted by a government selected in purity, invulnerable to nefarious or outside influences.

It could not have been a coincidence that Mr. Mueller presented his chronicle of the Russian interference at the very beginning of his report. He left the material that might provide fodder for partisan contention to the second volume, as if the contemporary contretemps − who did what, and who might be hurt, exonerated, punished or even impeached − were of diminished importance in light of the broader challenge to principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the practices set forth in the U.S. Constitution 11 years later.

And yet, this was a thoroughly modern 21st-century report on diversions from 18th-century principles, a report studded with references to Twitter, Facebook, Guccifer 2.0 and cyberresponse teams. Mr. Mueller surely understood that his findings, released on the internet during an unusually fractured passage in the history of a two-century-old republic, would be examined first for its findings on the current occupant of the White House.

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And in that regard, the Mueller report did not declaim on the fitness of Mr. Trump to be the United States’ chief executive, but it solidified the views of both his supporters and detractors. It did not settle important questions about how to assure the purity of the 2020 presidential campaign, but it left open vital questions that the Democrats surely will use to question the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency. It did not lay to rest questions about the contacts between Mr. Trump’s campaign and outside political forces, but it provides a playbook for Democratic investigators wishing to probe those contacts. It all but invited congressional consideration of whether the President sought to obstruct justice, writing: “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.“

In 448 pages of language, at once legalistic in structure but approachable in style, there was ample ammunition for both sides.

But the report underscored the danger Mr. Trump realized he was in. “Oh my God,” he said after the appointment of Mr. Mueller. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”

It wasn’t − but Mr. Mueller provided the Democrats who are determined to end the Trump presidency with a road map to continue those efforts, or at the very least, to continue to torment him.

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