After Mueller, Democrats need to avoid the Javert trap

The filing of the report of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and the subsequent decision of Attorney General William Barr not to seek further prosecutions — including any legal action against President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE — is a watershed moment, not only for the embattled president but also for congressional Democrats.

Neither Mueller not Barr "exonerated" the president, as Trump proclaimed on Sunday. Indeed, Mueller was quite clear that “while the report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” In his letter to the Judiciary Committee, Barr noted that Mueller identified “‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the president’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.”

So, in the language of Watergate, “no smoking gun,” although a fair amount of smoke. House Democrats now have to make a very tough call about how much energy and credibility to pour into the dissection of the Mueller-Barr decisions, while also weighing the political benefits and liabilities of appearing obsessed with proving the president’s culpability.

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The issuance of the report itself was almost guaranteed to be anticlimactic. Trump and his supporters have insisted for nearly two years there was “no collusion” while denigrating Mueller, former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump: Some statements about him in Mueller report are 'total bulls---' Colbert hits Trump after Mueller report: Innocent people don't say 'I'm f---ed' The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? MORE, Deputy AG Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinNew normal: A president can freely interfere with investigations without going to jail Ex-federal prosecutor: Mueller report offers 'knock down case for obstruction' for anyone but Trump Elijah Cummings: 'I am begging the American people to pay attention to what's going on' MORE and everyone else involved in the inquiry into the Russian collusion investigation. It is likely that even had Mueller produced tape recordings of Trump urging his cohorts to “save the plan” — replete with an 18 minute gap — somewhere around 36 percent of the American electorate would continue to support the president.

Similarly, the president’s critics have spent months breathlessly anticipating the Mueller report, substituting an endless supply of conditional “ifs,” “coulds,” “mights” and “possibles” for serious journalism. They will surely find plenty to chew over and dispute in the Mueller-Barr reports, but it appears they will not find  the definitive answers they sought.

All of which raises the special challenge now facing Democrats, many of whom have anticipated that the release of the Mueller report would launch the House majority into inevitable impeachment hearings. If there is one clear conclusion from Mueller’s report, it is that impeachment would be a foolish endeavor for House Democrats, and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiBoth sides were wrong about Mueller report, and none of it will likely matter for 2020 Elijah Cummings: 'I am begging the American people to pay attention to what's going on' Angus King: 'Mueller passed the obstruction question to the Congress and Barr intercepted the pass' MORE has wisely been steering her members away from those alluring Sirens for weeks.

Democrats run the risk of behaving like Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables,” obsessed with prosecution (although admittedly, Trump’s indiscretions are significantly worse than Jean Valjean’s pilfering of a loaf of bread). Javert‘s fixation on pursuing the thief resulted in his own destruction, a sober lesson for Democrats.

Yes, there is a segment of the base that lusts for impeachment regardless of the damage the process inflicts on the party, although most of them live in (and represent) districts that are safely Democratic and who therefore face little retribution for eviscerating Trump. Mueller’s report ensures there would be no Republican House votes for impeachment, and that even if an article were to pass on a strictly partisan basis (which has dismal precedents in U.S. history), it would be utterly disregarded by the Senate.

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Democrats did not win the majority on a promise to relentlessly pursue Trump; they won because candidates for Republican seats persuaded voters, long before the Mueller report was issued, that they could be trusted to address tough issues like health care, immigration, campaign finance reform, and integrity in government. If Democrats hope to retain those seats — and a majority — in 2020, they will have to demonstrate that the voters’ confidence was not misplaced. They assuredly will not retain the hard-won majority if they are perceived as single-mindedly heading down the impeachment, or even the Mueller-Barr, rabbit hole.

Yes, there should be a full review of the complete Mueller report and the Barr decision, but that can be done by a responsible committee or two while the rest of the House passes popular legislation, challenging an obdurate GOP Senate leadership that is too busy genuflecting to Trump to pay attention to the needs of the public.

Democrats would do well not to overestimate the appetite of the vast majority of Americans for extra innings for the Mueller inquiry. Speaker Pelosi, who similarly took impeachment of George W. Bush off the table in 2007-2008 to pursue energy independence, ethics reform and economic recovery understands the need for a pivot (to mix my sports metaphors). Her Caucus needs to heed her advice to set up the party for 2020 rather than obsess about 2016.

Trump is a dangerous, irresponsible, destructive president regardless of Mueller’s conclusions, not the least because he has utterly failed to respond to the well-documented evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. A healthy majority of Americans oppose his continuation in office irrespective of what he did or did not do in consort with the Russians and his bizarre band of myrmidons.

Democrats need to show voters they will not be distracted into a Javert-like, single-minded pursuit of a president who, Mueller and Barr aside, should be removed next year by voters.

John Lawrence is a Fellow of the George Washington University Graduate School of Public Management and author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.” He served as Speaker Pelosi’s chief of staff during 2005-2013.