Washington • It may not have been his intention, but special counsel Robert Mueller has forced a momentous choice on the Democrats who control the House of Representatives. How they navigate the next several months will matter not only to politics but, more importantly, to whether the rule of law prevails.
If we lived in a normal time with a normal president, a normal Republican Party and a normal attorney general, none of this would be so difficult. Mueller’s report is devastating. It portrays a lying, lawless president who pressured aides to obstruct the probe and was happy — "Russia, if you’re listening ... " — to win office with the help of a hostile foreign power. It also, by the way, shows him to be weak and hapless. His aides ignored his orders, and he regularly pandered to a Russian dictator.
Mueller's catalogue of infamy might have led Republicans of another day to say: Enough. But the GOP's new standard seems to be that a president is great as long as he's unindicted.
And never mind that the failure to charge Donald Trump stemmed not from his innocence but from a Justice Department legal opinion saying that a sitting president can't be indicted. Mueller explained he had "fairness concerns" — a truly charming qualm in light of the thuggishness described in the rest of the report — because the no-indictment rule meant there could be no trial. The president would lack an "adversarial opportunity for public name-clearing before an impartial adjudicator."
And perhaps Mueller did not reckon with an attorney general so eager to become the president's personal lawyer and chief propagandist. William Barr sat on the document for 27 days and mischaracterized it in his March 24 letter. He mischaracterized it again just an hour before it was released.
This leaves Democrats furious — and on their own. Unfortunately, it is not news that this party has a nasty habit of dividing into hostile camps. On the one side, the cautious; on the other side, the aggressive. The prudent ones say that members of the hit-for-the-fences crowd don't understand the political constraints. The pugnacious ones say their circumspect colleagues are timid sellouts.
Sometimes these fights are relatively harmless, but not this time. Holding Trump accountable for behavior that makes Richard Nixon look like George Washington matters, for the present, and for the future.
Those demanding impeachment are right to say that Mueller's report can't just be filed away and ignored. But being tough and determined is not enough. The House also needs to be sober and responsible.
This needle needs to be threaded not just for show, or for narrow electoral reasons. Trump and Barr have begun a battle for the minds and hearts of that small number of Americans who are not already locked into their positions. Barr's calculated sloth in making the report public gave the president and his AG side-kick an opportunity to pre-shape how its findings would be received. The uncommitted now need to see the full horror of what Mueller revealed about this president. A resolute but deliberate approach is more likely to persuade them.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joins her caucus on a conference call on Monday, she will reiterate her "one step at a time" strategy. The bottom line is that rushing into impeachment and ruling it out are equally foolish. What this means is that the House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform Committees should and will begin inquiries immediately. Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler took the first step on Friday by subpoenaing the full, unredacted Mueller report. Mueller himself has already been asked to appear before both Judiciary and Intelligence.
Nothing is gained by labelling these initial hearings and document-requests as part of an "impeachment" process. But impeachment should remain on the table. Since Trump and Barr will resist all accountability, preserving the right to take formal steps toward impeachment will strengthen the Democrats' legal arguments that they have a right to information that Trump would prefer to deep six.
Of course, Trump is not the only issue in politics. Democratic presidential candidates are already out there focusing on health care, climate, economic justice and political reform. The House can continue other work while the investigators do their jobs.
In an ideal world, the corruption and deceitfulness Mueller catalogued would already have Trump flying off to one of his golf resorts for good. But we do not live in such a world. Defending democratic values and republican government requires fearlessness. It also takes patience.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.