The never-ending story of Donald Trump's presidency -- something like a real-life version of the movies "Idiocracy," "The Running Man," "They Live" and "A Face in the Crowd," combined with Octavia Butler's novel "Parable of the Talents" -- has turned another page.
Last Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller submitted the final version of his much anticipated report on the 2016 Donald Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice to his boss, Attorney General William Barr.
A chapter in the story that should read, "The Trump-Russia Scandal: The End" is instead punctuated by question marks or an ellipsis.
In his summary of Mueller's report, Barr wrote, "The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election." On the issue of obstruction Barr quoted Mueller directly: "While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him".
This chapter has no great climax or neat resolution. It has petered out, deflated and weak.
In this political tragicomedy, Mueller's report is a type of MacGuffin, like the suitcase in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" or the eponymous Maltese Falcon in John Huston's film -- a device that propels the entire plot forward.
But the American people, and even members of Congress, have not been allowed to see the reveal. We do not know what the MacGuffin actually is. Instead we have only been given a second-hand, vague very selective description by Donald Trump's handpicked protector. In the Trump-Russia story William Barr is by definition a very unreliable narrator.
Donald Trump, Republicans, their media and supporters are jubilant. Although there is little real basis for this, they are proclaiming that Trump has been completely exonerated. Trump, their hero, has escaped one more time to continue his further adventures. For Trump and his fan club Mueller's report is "The. Best. Thing. Ever."
By contrast, Democrats and other patriotic people of conscience who are deeply troubled and concerned by Donald Trump's open hostility to democracy, his brazen lying and his numerous problematic contacts with Russia and its agents are left feeling even more disgusted and frustrated.
For them, William Barr's rendition of Mueller's report cannot possibly be accurate.
Albeit for very different reasons, for both Democrats and Republicans all the emotion invested in the Trump-Russia story to this point has been wasted. The MacGuffin was a fraud of sorts, a cheap trick.
What of the American people more generally?
Public opinion polls show that the vast majority of American people want to see the contents of the Mueller report. But they are also increasingly tired, frustrated and disconnected from the Trump-Russia scandal. Fox News viewers believe that Trump is the greatest president ever, but most Americans do not share that view. In total, Trump's support remains at approximately 40 percent. The public remains polarized and divided; the Trump-Russia scandal and the Mueller report are further cementing those lines of division and conflict.
The American people are also partly responsible for the failure(s) of the Trump-Russia story.
Some of them wanted Robert Mueller to be a villain. This is Trump's "witch hunt" and "deep state" conspiracy. The other part of the audience wanted Mueller to be a hero who slays evil and makes the world right again. But in reality Robert Mueller is just a man, not a Titan. He is just a mortal. A burden to be something greater should never have been placed on his shoulders.
In ancient Greek theater there was a famous storytelling device known to posterity as the deus ex machina. This was literally a machine where at a crucial point in the story a character (usually a god) would be lowered from above onto the stage. He would then intervene to save the hero or otherwise right the path of the narrative toward a "proper" resolution.
At one of the most important moments in the Trump-Russia investigation, Robert Mueller stepped away from the machine and gave its reins over to William Barr. Would he directly intervene to save Donald Trump or would he instead hold him accountable for obstructing justice? Or would Barr do nothing and allow Congress to exercise its constitutionally mandated power of checks and balances?
For Barr the conclusion to this story was written some time ago. It could only end one way. Everything in the drama was building up to a preordained conclusion that could not be altered, even if the internal logic of the narrative did not support it.
Barr would descend from the rafters and declare the Trump-Russia story to be over. The audience would be left divided and disgusted. They want their money back, but no such thing will happen. The disclaimers are on the back of the ticket and the sign hanging over the entrance to the theater.
But there is at least one person who is smiling and clapping at the whole debacle. For him it was the greatest of shows. Vladimir Putin is in the shadows, watching as his plan worked to perfection. Putin may not literally have been pulling Donald Trump's puppet strings, but he certainly produced the play.
Writing at Empty Wheel, investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler summarizes events this way:
First, consider all this from the perspective of Russia: over and over, they exploited Trump’s epic narcissism and venality. Particularly with regards to the Trump Tower deal, they did so in a way that would be especially damaging. ... Russia did this in ways that would make it especially difficult for Trump to come clean about it, even if he were an upstanding honest person.
Partly as a result, partly because he’s a narcissist who wanted to deny that he had illicit help to win, and partly because he’s a compulsive liar, Trump and his aides all lied about what they’ve now sworn to be true. Over and over again. ... Not only did Trump’s defensiveness make him prefer what Putin told him to what American Russian experts and his intelligence community would tell him, but he set about destroying the FBI in an effort to deny the facts that his aides ultimately swore were true. Sure, Russia hasn’t gotten its sanctions relief, yet. But it has gotten the President himself to attack the American justice system, something Putin loves to do. ...
But we also know that Russia succeeded wildly with its attack in 2016 and since. Democrats and Republicans are going to continue being at each other’s throats over Trump’s policies and judges. Trump will continue to be a venal narcissist who obstructs legitimate oversight into his mismanagement of government.
At least two things must happen for the Trump-Russia story to have a proper ending and for this nightmarish scenario never to happen again.
First, the Mueller Report must be made public in its entirety. The American people and the world cannot rely on a second-hand, partisan, and highly selective summary by Trump's hand-picked attorney general.
More important still, the American people must grow up and take responsibility for their own salvation. It is time to abandon childish things. No heroes are coming to save them from Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the danger they represent. To end this fantastical nightmare made all too real, the American people must save themselves.