Robert Mueller toiled over his report for two years, slightly longer than it took Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick”. Going by a summary provided by the attorney-general, though, the endings are the same: the whale gets away. The special counsel did not find that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government when it interfered in the 2016 election. The president is crowing. Democrats in Congress point out that Mr Mueller did not exonerate the president over obstruction of justice, which is also true. But make no mistake: this is as good an outcome as Donald Trump could have wished for.
For the rest of his first term, and perhaps long into his second, he will be able to point to an exhaustive investigation and say he was right all along. The president thrives on grievance—against the media, the federal bureaucracy, or anyone he suspects of feeling superior. The outcome of the Mueller report will feed that. As a result, the silver harpoon that some Americans hoped would finish off Mr Trump may in fact strengthen him.
A few lessons can be drawn from this episode. The first is not to confuse a legal process with a political one. Ever since Mr Trump won power, those Americans who could not bear the idea of him as president have dreamed of some non-political way to erase the result—of a jurist who could simply declare it all over. Mr Mueller seemed the likeliest candidate for this role, just as Kenneth Starr did in the campaign to remove Bill Clinton.
In fact the fate of Mr Trump’s presidency will depend on politics, probably through the ballot box in 2020. Even those Democrats who cling to the fantasy of using Congress to impeach and remove him need to understand just how political this process would be. The fevered speculation during the two years of the Mueller investigation has often masked that.
The other lesson Democrats should heed is to keep quiet about a legal process until it is over. That is worth bearing in mind as House committees under Democratic control pursue their own investigations, and courts and prosecutors look into allegations about Mr Trump and his family. Some of his opponents have prejudged these investigations. If it turns out that he did not commit the crimes they expect, they risk not just having distracted voters from the real agenda, but also giving him a boost. They should not make the same mistake twice.
The Mueller investigation also holds lessons for those Republicans emboldened to seek vengeance for what they say was treason against their president. Thanks to Mr Mueller, the president’s campaign manager and personal lawyer are both heading to prison. His national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the fbi about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Since Watergate, nothing like this has happened in American politics. By revealing duplicitous and corrupt behaviour among Mr Trump’s team, and by bringing prosecutions, Mr Mueller has helped cleanse political campaigning.
The investigation also revealed that the president misled voters about his business interests in Russia. While the candidate was rewriting orthodox Republican Party policy towards Vladimir Putin, his company was trying to build a skyscraper in Moscow. His retrospective justification was that he might have lost the election, in which case it would have been a shame to give up on a deal. This conflict of interest did not amount to criminal collusion or conspiracy, in the special counsel’s view. It is nevertheless the sort of transgression that America’s political system would not have tolerated before Mr Trump came along.
There is a last reason to be thankful to Mr Mueller. Each time America’s political system goes through an upheaval, it sets a precedent for how its institutions will handle the next one. Mr Mueller’s conduct was exemplary. If widespread misconduct once again occurs in an American presidential election, the expectation will be that a special counsel will investigate. Though Mr Trump repeatedly denounced the investigation as a witch-hunt, he did not fire the witch-finder. Mr Mueller was able to finish his work. For that, at least, Mr Trump deserves credit.