It's over. It's just the beginning. The president is exculpated. He's still vulnerable. The special counsel now has affirmed the White House line. He still could be in the president's crosshairs.
The recent Justice Department indictment of 13 Russians and three companies gave great clarity to the role Russia played in the 2016 presidential contest, even as it raised vital questions about the security of the American political system and perhaps postponed a final reckoning — if not for Donald J. Trump then surely for questions of Russian involvement in the election.
Many of the questions won't be answered in the next weeks, and some may not be answered for years. But they are significant for domestic and national security reasons, for they have impact both for the sanctity of this year's midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election, and for long-term relations between the United States and Russia.
Here are some of those questions:
• Since special counsel Robert Mueller found a systematic attack on American democracy, how does the United States respond?
Never in American history has a foreign nation tried with such diligence, persistence and financial resources to wreak havoc with our most precious political process — one whose integrity assures its fairness. It is not altogether ironic that the foreign power that interfered with our election has substantially different political values and, under czar and commissar as well as under Vladimir Putin, has practiced a form of politics inimical to our own.
The president has few options. He can withdraw diplomatic relations, which is unlikely. He can impose sanctions, which may be provocative but perhaps acceptably so. He can freeze out Putin and the Russians in international relations and in international forums. But a president who has spoken about "America first" surely will, or should, want to preserve the first principles of America.
• What does the grand jury indictment do to the Democratic narrative?
It surely disrupts the story the Democrats desperately want told: that Trump and his campaign colluded with the Russians, that there was a concerted effort to undermine the campaign of Hillary Clinton and that the president's election, if not illegitimate, was severely compromised. The Justice Department's specific language that Trump associates were "unwitting" in any contacts they had with the Russians gave the president room to claim that the entire Democratic narrative has been refuted.
• Is the White House response persuasive?
The president seized upon the Russia developments by proclaiming "The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!" Last weekend, Team Trump began to refine its own narrative, arguing the 37-page indictment proves there was no collusion between the Russians and the campaign and, further, that the activity began under Barack Obama. The clear implication: Trump's predecessor was insufficiently attentive to the intrusion of foreigners into the election.
Soon an additional argument emerged: The Russian interference did not affect the outcome of the 2016 election but did create chaos -- a chaos that has been amplified by the Democrats and the mainstream media, whose politically motivated, manufactured chaos was more damaging than the Russian-produced chaos. Clearly, for every triple toe loop of logic emerging from the White House, there is a quadruple axel from the Democrats.
• Is this episode following the customary Washington scandal cycle and pattern?
Here the "Anna Karenina" principle applies: Every scandal is scandalous in its own way. And in every episode, the alleged principals argue that there is no scandal at all. That certainly conforms to the usual pattern.
One additional element of the customary pattern also clearly does apply: Once special counsels or their equivalents get involved, there is no predictable outcome. The experience of Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton are sufficient evidence for this. No one expected the first product of the Mueller investigation to be identity theft, for example. The future course of the Mueller investigation likewise cannot be safely or accurately predicted.
• Is the crisis over for Trump, or is it just beginning?
A principal Trump argument — that foreign interference in the election was a "fraud" — now is rendered, to borrow a phrase from Watergate, inoperative. Moreover, Mueller clearly believes he has more work to do; the interviews he has conducted suggest he has suspicions if not convictions of where he is heading. Having established interference in the election, his next step may be to examine further the relationship among members of the Trump family with the Russians indicted or with others -- and to seek to determine whether members of the Trump family or campaign later came to recognize or encourage Russian interference.
• Is there a card that hasn't been played yet?
Yes, there are many, and one of them is a whopper. Trump has spent much of his White House tenure railing against the CIA and the FBI. He's just been handed another bludgeon: the FBI's catastrophic misstep in not following up on warnings about the danger posed by Nikolas Cruz, the teen who became the Florida school shooter. Trump late last Saturday night used that lethal failure to undermine the credibility of the FBI. Watch for him to argue that America's principal anti-crime institution is not to be trusted and needs to be overhauled.
• What's next?
Probably not the dismissal of Mueller, who by staking out an early set of charges added substantially to his job security. If the president finds comfort in the indictments, it makes it more difficult for him to dismiss the investigation as a politically motivated fraud and thus far harder for him to fire Mueller. In addition, it was much easier to replace Mueller while he was purely an investigator. Now he is a prosecutor, and a grand jury's indictment stands as strong suggestion if not devout conviction that at least something nefarious was going on.
The forecast for the weeks ahead is for more political combat, with the hopes of the Democrats clashing with the hopes of the White House and with Mueller fortified in his position. One thing is sure, however. This investigation, and the full revelation of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, is not yet over. And with important midterm congressional elections less than nine months away, the stakes for the Mueller team, for the White House and for the Democrats could not be higher.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG