No one gets vindicated, not in this world and not in our politics – that is our first takeaway as the dust slowly settles from Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the final report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into “Donald Trump, Russia, and Collusion.”
There will be many political repercussions. President Trump seems likely to finish his first term stronger than he began. That may be a low bar, but he sees it that way and logic dictates he is bound to be right at least some of the time. And he is not alone. In any event, the resistance and Democrats will have some soul-searching to do once they work through denial, anger and bargaining. That will take time.
The mainstream news media, wittingly or not, has inflated the Russia conspiracy for two years. There will have to be a reckoning for that, too.
In the days since Barr disclosed the summary, we have heard several astute people ask why, if Trump did not collude with the Russians, did he act like he did? Why does he act like Vladimir Putin’s puppet if he is not?
These are open-ended questions. One answer is coherence. Government is more transparent than ever before and so we can see day to day, hour to hour and tweet to tweet that over-archingly, a lot of what the president does, especially in terms of policy, does not make sense. (This is one of the few things on which we can nearly all agree.) He contradicts himself.
And we are just idealistic enough to see one ear of a pony peeking out. Suppose the Democrats wanted to continue the resistance by other means. They could advance a candidate for the presidency in 2020 who is wise rather than clever, succinct, sincere, and most of all, coherent. Two could play the what-you-see-is-what-you-get game, and one could make sense. It is a radical idea.
But that is in the future, as far from here as the Steele Dossier in the rear-view mirror. Since no one gets out alive, one thing we would like to know as we negotiate our fortunes is how we in the press blew this.
Another thing no one doubts is that something phenomenal occurred when Trump won the presidency. The question was whether he was a threat to democracy or whether we could afford to trust the institutions of the republic to contain even an impulsive, incurious and blustering real estate promoter as chief executive. The question was when to break the glass and pull the alarm. Do it too quickly and you look foolish; wait too long and you could burn.
When, not long after the election, some of the best editors determined that exceptional times called for exceptional measures, we may have erred on the wrong side of caution. Seasoned professionals thought they were in a maelstrom; many smart people outside the profession still think so. Many, pressed by Trump’s baiting, succumbed to the notion that the old rule book was inadequate. It was like playing tennis with the net down. That was a mistake, yet as long as Mueller sat, no one could say for sure.
What do you do about bad reporting? The only thing you can: more reporting.
A timid press serves no one well. All any of us can do is try to make better mistakes tomorrow.