There has been much celebration in liberal and moderate (and sane conservative) circles since last night's announcement of the assignment of Robert Mueller as special "councel" in the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election. On the surface, such a move by Deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein seems to be a point in favor of those who have argued that safety valves built-into the system will save us from the worst damage possibly inflicted by a Trump presidency. But just below that facade lurks a less satisfying truth: there may be no good outcome.
The damage may already be done.
No matter what may or may not be uncovered by the investigation to come, no obvious outcome leads me to any place of comfort. While the possibilities are truly endless at this point, the most likely outcomes fall into just a handful of categories:
Outcome 1: Mueller uncovers evidence of collusion between foreign agents and the Trump campaign that Trump was aware of or worked to actively cover up.
Outcome 2: Mueller uncovers evidence of collision between foreign agents and the Trump campaign that Trump himself was unaware of.
Outcome 3: Mueller uncovers evidence of other illegal acts on the part of Trump or his circle.
Outcome 4: Mueller finds no evidence of any illegal act.
So what happens then? That's the problem.
Outcome 1 would certainly result in calls for the impeachment of Donald Trump. At that point, it would seem almost (but not completely) impossible that House conservatives would resist those calls. Should this result in his Senate conviction and removal from office, we would be subjected to the administration of either Mike Pence or Paul Ryan. Without hesitation, I can assert that the domestic damage done to our country by a Pence or Ryan administration would be no less than that done by Trump. In fact, unbound by Democratic resistance, the damage could be far worse in many areas. Social programs, entitlement spending, gay rights, and income inequality spring to mind as areas that Pence and Ryan have each targeted throughout their careers, and in ways that (gulp) Trump has so far resisted. And that Democratic resistance would have to wait until 2019 at the earliest to take hold. This would give Republicans at least a year to destroy the social safety net and reshape society in the image of Ayn Rand with no real constraints.
Outcome 2 would likely see Trump's administration survive. (It may result in the resignation or removal of Mike Pence, though. Pence is reported to have known detail about the investigations into officials such as Flynn while publicly stating he had no knowledge of such things.) In the eyes of many, this will be seen as a Trump victory and he will survive, though his agenda will be hampered. This will lead to a dynamic we have seen in the past, where legislation will be driven from the Speaker's office rather than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Count on Freedom Caucus bills being endorsed by a president with enough functioning digits to sign conservative legislation.
Outcome 3 -- the outcome which I personally find most likely -- would likely result in Trump's removal, and we would be back to a President Pence or Ryan. This may result in the kind of administration loss that we saw during Watergate, where multiple aides lose their jobs before the President finally loses his. Again, this is no comfort.
And if Mueller finds nothing illegal? Trump will be coated with political Teflon, regardless of what irregularities or legal-but-improper acts are uncovered. There will never be a chance for the kind of bipartisan commission that followed 9/11, and we will likely never get answers to how Russia's actions may affect elections in the future as a result. This would almost certainly politically injure Democrats, even as most have remained careful in their rhetorical treatment of Trump's questionable acts. We will see the worst instincts of Trump unleashed, and the media and Democrats will be left impotent to fight back.
It's normal -- and good -- to mark victories and to celebrate when advances are made against those who are actively destroying this nation. But it is every bit as important to understand what victories look like, and to make certain that those at the forefront do not let their vigilance slide for even one moment. The only way through this is to acknowledge the awful realities before they're thrust on us unexpectedly.