To call President Trump “Machiavellian” is to give him a little too much credit. Machiavelli had a keen awareness of history and could speak in complete sentences.
But if Trump has figured out how to out-maneuver Democrats and his opponents, it’s only because they so easily fall for his traps every time.
It’s happening again, right now, as Democrats in Congress take the next steps on the Mueller investigation.
Underwhelmed by Robert Mueller’s conclusion, at least as characterized in the four-page letter sent by Attorney General William Barr, and suspicious of Barr’s independence, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have just voted to issue subpoenas to get the full, unredacted report detailing the two-year long investigation into Russian election meddling and Trump’s potential collusion and obstruction of justice.
There are plenty of good reasons to want to see the report.
It serves the public interest to know exactly what Russian hackers did to try to manipulate our elections. It may hold accountable various government agencies and powerful private entities. And, as journalists, we believe sunlight is always the best disinfectant.
Call me cynical, but I’m fairly certain these aren’t the reasons Democrats in Congress want to see all the details of the Mueller report. It’s because they believe they will be damaging to Trump, his family and his administration.
They don’t believe this grudgingly, hoping to be proven wrong about the President. They believe this because they want to. There were no celebrations in Democratic corners upon learning the U.S. president did not collude with Russia to steal an election. There were, however, plenty of high-ranking Democrats in Congress who insisted a report they hadn’t seen had reached the wrong conclusion, and if only we could see all of it — every last unredacted word — they’ll be proven right.
Trump learned early on to count on such overzealousness from Democrats, and it helps him every time. Because when they overpromise, he doesn’t have to be even a little right to win. They just have to be a little wrong.
The Mueller report is the mother of all examples: Democrats saw Trump’s affection for Putin, and a pattern of lies from Team Trump about contacts with Russia, and concluded not only that the Kremlin must have helped him win the election, but that they had to be in cahoots. An investigation commenced, Trump conditioned the environment for mistrust, smearing everyone involved, and held his breath on the conclusions, knowing Democrats would set the bar too high.
But it’s just the biggest example, not the only.
Democrats in the House Oversight Committee deposed a man who was already going to jail for lying to them because they really wanted him to fatally embarrass the president for things he might have done before he took office. Michael Cohen gamely played along, offering up juicy tidbits about Trump’s financial practices, bullying and lying.
But to what end? What changed?
For nearly four years, Democrats have insisted on seeing Trump’s tax returns, presumably because they believe and hope they will reveal some smoking gun conflict of interest or evidence of tax avoidance that will take him down.
When and if they do not, what then?
This pattern of overpromising and underdelivering is only helping Trump sow distrust in our institutions. And by continually setting the bar too high, teasing the promise of his ruin around every corner, they give Trump an unintentional win every time.
There’s a way to perform important oversight without playing right into Trump’s hands — quietly and without rushing to conclusions that might not manifest. We should see the Mueller report because it’s in the public interest, not because it will necessarily lead to Trump’s demise.
Meanwhile, Democrats would be better served focusing on areas they can actually win: on policy. There, too, they’d be well advised not to overpromise and underdeliver.
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