The two weeks since the FBI descended on Mar-a-Lago have felt remarkably familiar. It’s not just that Donald Trump is dominating headlines once again; it’s that all the hits of 2017 and 2018 are being played again: legal experts cobbling together complex theories out of fragmentary information, exciting Twitter speculation about espionage and treason, a “this time we’ve got him” spirit unseen since the days of Robert Mueller devotional candles.
The familiarity is useful; it means that we can look back and consider why they didn’t “get him” then, why Russiagate ended in a relative fizzle and sealed Republicans into a permanent suspicion of any investigation into Trumpian malfeasance.
The Russia investigation was predicated — in the public eye and, at least in part, in its legal origins — on dire and dramatic scenarios: that Trump had been cultivated as an agent of influence by Moscow, that there was a secret alliance between Trump’s inner circle and Russian intelligence, that the Trump campaign and the Russians had effectively collaborated in the hacking and dissemination of the Democratic National Committee’s emails. (And lordy, that maybe there was a pee tape.)
None of these scenarios were proved by the investigation. As many Trump critics hastened to argue, the Mueller report did not exonerate the president or his campaign from wrongdoing. But the guilt established or suggested involved many things done in the clear light of day in an election that Trump won (encouraging Russian hackers and touting the information released), things attempted but never brought to fruition (some hapless, “Burn After Reading”-level attempts to connect with Russian dirt peddlers) and possible obstructions of justice in the course of the Mueller inquiry.
Meanwhile, it also became clear that the investigation itself was guilty of process abuses, particularly in the way that the FBI went about obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants. And there was an obvious feedback loop between this investigative overreach and the overheated media coverage — the fact that law enforcement was unwisely using the infamous Steele dossier as a predicate encouraged journalists to amplify the dossier’s extreme scenarios, because after all, if the FBI took them seriously, they must be very serious indeed.
The endpoint of the investigation, then, reminded everyone that Trump is a self-interested intriguer surrounded by low-minded hacks. But it also made the feds and the press look as if they had overreached in search of a Watergate ending. And for the partisan mind, the second part loomed inevitably larger, confirming Trump’s supporters in their belief that whatever sins their man might commit, the deep state was always out to get him.
Now here we are again, and like the decisions of Mueller and James Comey before him, Merrick Garland’s choices turn on facts that the public can see only through a glass darkly. But I sincerely hope that the attorney general had the Russiagate experience in mind when he signed off on the search of Mar-a-Lago and that he considers how Mueller’s investigation finished as he considers his next move.
The lesson to be drawn is emphatically not that Trump needs to be given permanent immunity because of a “don’t arrest ex-presidents” rule or out of fears that his supporters will take to the streets or launch lone-wolf attacks on the FBI.
The lesson, rather, is that if the agents of the state come after Trump, and especially now when they come as representatives of an administration that might face him in the next election, they can’t afford to miss.
Not only in the jury box but also in the court of public opinion, it needs to be clear, crystal clear, what separates any crimes he might be charged with from — for example — the perjury and obstruction of justice that didn’t send Bill Clinton to prison or the breach of intelligence protocols that Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn’t charged with. You don’t just need a plausible legal case that tests interesting questions about presidential declassification powers; you need an easy-to-explain slam dunk.
So if you have Trump taking design documents for nuclear weapons and shopping them to his pals in Saudi Arabia, congratulations — you got him; lock him up. If you have him taking boxes of notes from foreign leaders because he’s a childish egomaniac who thinks that he’s earned his White House souvenirs, well, then take the documents back, declare victory for the public interest and stop there. And if he took documents about the Russia investigation itself, of the sort that he wanted declassified during his presidency — well, tread carefully, lest you trap us all in an awful time loop where it’s forever 2017.
It seems like a reasonable presumption that the documents in question are more serious than just some notes to Kim Jong Un but that the potential incrimination falls short of Trump literally selling secrets. But that’s a presumption, not a prediction. I’ve learned to be unsurprised by Trump’s folly and venality but also by his capacity to induce self-defeating blunders among people and institutions I would have considered relatively sensible before his ascent.
So no predictions, just the warning: Don’t miss.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.