The long-awaited submission of the Mueller report has come and gone, and even before anyone outside of the Department of Justice has actually seen the thing, President Donald Trump, his allies, and the anti-Russiagate press have been taking their victory laps, and House Democrats are becoming even more forcefully anti-impeachment than they were last week. A chapter that took way too long ended on Friday, but the country feels even more broken than it did before that.
The idea that there would be an actual smoking gun tying Donald Trump to direct knowledge of and complicity in the Russian government’s attempts to influence the 2016 election was never the most likely scenario. The Democrats’ overwhelming faith in the Republican former director of the FBI to find this smoking gun was proof of the desire to keep the process as “apolitical” as possible, but ultimately, Mueller decided to kick the decision about Trump’s criminal culpability back to the president’s political appointees. “While this report does not include that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller wrote in the report, according to Attorney General William Barr.
Consider that in the entire history of the United States—a history written by a laundry list of war criminals and crooks—not a single American president has been removed from office by impeachment. The closest example we have is Richard Nixon, who actually gave an order to obstruct justice on a taped recording, and chose to resign rather than go through impeachment proceedings.
But Nixon is the exception to the rule, and not even much of one at that: at the time, Nixon was dealing with a Congress that remained overwhelmingly Democratic, even after his landslide win over George McGovern in 1972. If Nixon’s Republican Party—a decidedly less right-wing iteration than the one we have today—had controlled Congress, there’s no guarantee he would have ever been forced to step down.
Investigations are still ongoing at the congressional level, as well as in the Southern District of New York and the state level. But for the most part, the Mueller report was a reminder that in America, politics almost always triumphs. And the only way to get accountability in America—at least some small form of it—is from the people.
Donald Trump has thrown children in cages. His deportation force has terrorized families all over the country. He’s sided with white supremacists. He’s imposed a quasi-religious test on entering the United States. He is an unrepentant bigot who curries favor with other unrepentant bigots. All of this is more than enough to justify a forced removal of office. But with the Mueller investigation now over, it should be clearer now than ever before that the only chance we have for that to happen is in the 2020 presidential election.
Is it an adequate form of accountability? No, absolutely not. Looking back at recent transitions of power, the fact that the most significant rebuke of George W. Bush’s war presidency we saw didn’t involve a cell at the Hague but rather the landslide Democratic victory in 2008 is a pittance, especially considering the ultimate similarities between the Bush and Obama presidencies.
The next Democratic president, whenever that happens, will in all likelihood call for a return to norms and a period of healing or whatever bullshit helps them feel good about the country they’ve signed up to run. Trump will never face real consequences for his actions like you or I would. It will be undoubtedly infuriating.
But getting Trump out of office in 2020 should be viewed as more than a consolation prize; it’s an opportunity to end the worst aspects of Trump’s presidency, to protect vulnerable people, and to make the United States a more livable place for everyone. Outside of a popular uprising—which, I cannot stress enough, would be vastly preferable to waiting around for an election—the best shot to do that will come in November 2020. And the only way we’re going to get there is by doing politics, not by running away from them.