President Donald Trump has not yet been vindicated. Only his reelection will provide that condition so rare in the modern era of politics.
But with the conclusion of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday, Trump has decisively repulsed the attempt to deny him the opportunity to win that vindication at the polls in November 2020. Indeed, the president is now obviously, and with a high probability of success, going on the offensive.
Politics is not war, but the history of war can provide useful analogies to understanding politics. Twice European powers embarked on attempts to conquer Russia — the French under Napoleon during the 19th century and the Germans under Hitler during the 20th. Both attacks nearly succeeded, and only strategic retreat — deeply bitter to endure in both cases — saved Russia until the moment when it could switch to the offensive and then attack and destroy it enemies. The president has had to retreat before Mueller for two years, and he has hated every minute of it. But Trump is now going on the offensive.
Another analogy: Even though Gen. James Longstreet advised Gen. Robert E. Lee that the latter’s closing strategy of the Battle of Gettysburg — Pickett’s Charge — was doomed, Lee went ahead with it. That advance was reckless and failed before breaching the Union’s defenses on Cemetery Ridge. That charge is known as the high-water mark of the Confederacy, though the best strategist knew it would end in defeat even before the first shot was fired on July 3, 1863.
Before Mueller began to speak on Wednesday, the impeachment effort had already collapsed, though the “impeachment caucus,” like Lee in 1863, didn’t allow itself an objective look at its circumstances. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, played the role of Longstreet here, and was ignored. The consequences were disastrous for Mueller, the reputation of his staff and for the Democrats chairing the two committees of inquiry — Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, and Adam Schiff, D-California.
Now they and their allies (including many in the media) are trying to cover their retreat with all sorts of smoke, but Trump is just beginning to advance his arguments about what has blanketed the country since the summer of 2016. The president is going to argue that the real scandal was the attempt to keep him from winning election and, once having won, from governing. And his opponents did so by shocking means far outside the norms of law and U.S. politics. In this offensive against his tormentors of the past 36 months, the president may be aided by the Justice Department’s office of the inspector general and by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to whom Attorney General William Barr has entrusted the investigation into what may well become “CoIntelPro 2.0.”
Even if not, Trump will make this argument simply by force of repetition of the facts we already know: The Steele Dossier was a con job from the start — opposition research passed off as intelligence and, at best, stupidly accepted as legitimate by a naive FBI. It could turn out much worse than this. Wise advice during the Mueller investigation was to wait for the endgame and not guess. The same holds for the inspector general and for Durham.
That the attack on Trump has decisively failed is not open to debate — except by people unfamiliar with sunk costs. Many political figures and folks in the commentariat heavily invested in the idea that Mueller would bring forth impeachment, and possibly even conviction and removal of the president. He did not. Impeachment proceedings, much less a successful vote on articles of impeachment, seem unlikely.
Trump has his economic boom, his deregulatory record, his military buildup and his remaking of the judiciary. He has criminal-justice reform to his credit and an overhaul of Veterans Affairs is underway. He now has a spending deal that would guarantee continuing fiscal stimulus via larger deficits, and he has four vacancies (to which he astonishingly has not nominated anyone) on the U.S. courts of appeals for the 2nd and 9th circuits, as well as scores of district court openings to remind his base of the stakes.
And he has his Twitter account and a command of the media battlefield unequaled by any modern president. He shapes and reshapes that media battlefield every day. The relatively tiny audiences of cable news and journalism generally cannot compete with the president’s ability to set the agenda. Like the retreats of the French and the Germans from Russia, this retreat by impeachment’s true believers isn’t going to be pretty, either.
The smart folks among the media elites are cutting their losses. We saw some of that even as the Mueller hearings wore on. It was a terrible strategy from the start, and it ended badly for everyone — except Donald Trump.
Hugh Hewitt is a Washington Post contributing columnist and president of the Nixon Foundation.