(Special counsel Robert Mueller walks with his wife, Ann, in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.)
The big news from Washington is that special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into President Donald Trump’s ‘Russia collusion’ is unfounded. Attorney General William Barr’s communication to the US Congress says, “The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” It adds, “The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the special counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.”
Trump has reason to feel elated, as his initial reaction shows. “It’s a shame that our country had to go through this, to be honest it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this for, before I even got elected it began,” Trump said, from the tarmac by Air Force One. “This was an illegal take-down that failed.”
The point is, there is actually no other way of characterising the Mueller inquiry but that it was a political slugfest for Trump’s political opponents who stubbornly refused to accept his election victory in 2016 defeating Hillary Clinton. The shameful part is that the plot was hatched even before Trump’s victory under then president Barack Obama.
The vengeful conspiracy enjoyed widespread support from the US foreign and security policy establishment, leading think tanks and the media. Succinctly put, it was against the ascendance of a perceived ‘anti-establishment’ figure as president, who would dare to defy tradition and American history that he ought to conform to set parameters of foreign policies, no matter his popular mandate, serving the interests of the entrenched military-industrial complex.
The US establishment militated against Trump’s foreign policy agenda, especially his lukewarm attitude toward the Western alliance system represented by the NATO, his conviction that a cooperative relationship with Russia will be not only mutually beneficial for American interests but also a practical necessity, his repudiation of ‘endless wars’ and interventionist policies abroad, and his all-embracing ‘America First’ outlook with strong isolationist overtones.
However, it was in the ‘Russia collusion’ thesis that Trump’s opponents saw the most potential to debilitate his presidency and even force him to quit office. The result has been that on a parallel track, a robust campaign began, casting Russia in an ‘enemy’ image and putting in place legislation that made it virtually impossible for Trump to engage with the Kremlin in Moscow. The Congress even legislated that the its approval is needed for removal of sanctions against Russia. The paranoia was such that Trump was no longer free to hold one-to-one conversations with Russian president Vladimir Putin lest he betrayed US national security interests.
Having said that, the Mueller report may not substantially change the US’ Russia policies. The US’ relations with Russia are at an all-time low and there is enough evidence that Trump himself is by no means a ‘dove’ on Russia or willing to accept an equal relationship with Russia. His past two years’ record shows that he believes in the US’ overwhelming military strength and superiority over Russia. At any rate, so long as the sanctions against Russia remain place — and there is no prospect of the lifting of sanctions in any conceivable future — the US-Russia relationship cannot be normalised.
On the other hand, Trump has been successful in asserting on a number of foreign policy issues — in his jettisoning of the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal; the withdrawal from the ‘endless wars’ in Afghanistan and Syria; his disinterest in Euro-Atlanticism and the so-called liberal international order; his bullying of allies to contribute more to defence; and, an overall aloofness from traditional allies such as Germany or Japan.
On balance, it is doubtful whether the world politics would have been any less turbulent had it not been for the Mueller inquiry. Ironically, Trump’s first major foreign policy move later today is going to add to the crisis in the Middle East — his expected formal announcement in Washington that the US recognises the Golan Heights as an integral part of Israel.
But the chances are that Trump may claim a few foreign policy success stories in the remaining period of his term — trade deal with China and, possibly, even a deal with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un that he can flaunt as the outcome of his powerful personality. No doubt, Trump will press ahead with troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the Democrats are largely in harmony with him. On the other hand, his confrontationist policy toward Iran will continue.
Trump will now be in a much stronger position to prevent tensions from cascading a New Cold War. Moscow hopes for a predictable relationship and sustained engagement with Washington. A Trump-Putin summit can no longer be dismissed as improbable, although the underlying causes of Russian-American tensions will not go away — NATO presence along Russia’s western borders, Ukraine, INF Treaty, etc.
As for the US’ European allies, Japan, Australia, etc. Muller’s finding can only come as depressing news. The spectre that is haunting Trump will be the prospect of Trump remaining as president till 2024, but the good part is that the nascent thinking in Europe in regard of an independent policy toward Russia may gain momentum.
All in all, what emerges is that the impact of the Mueller inquiry report is going to be felt most significantly in the US domestic politics — Trump’s own political future, in particular. For sure, there isn’t going to be any impeachment of Trump and he will indeed finish his term. It is no longer relevant whether he has committed any impeachable offence. No doubt, the Democrats have lost the initiative.
Trump will now commence his reelection fight without an Albatross round his neck. That helps to consolidate his political base, which remains quite satisfied with his performance so far. As for Trump’s persona, does it really matter? The American political commentator Elizabeth Drew wrote in the weekend (anticipating the Mueller report): “Trump is America’s first cult president. His followers delight in his insouciance toward the norms of political behaviour, his dismissal of “political correctness,” and his skill at taking down opponents… He skates on the edge of incitement and governs on the edge of danger.”
Simply put, Trump will be on a roll unless the Democratic Party process manages to produce a strong enough opponent. But then, Trump now also has a powerful weapon in the Mueller report to use against his Democratic opponents, demonising them for perpetuating a hoax that handicapped his presidency, but for which he and America would have fared far better.