Democrats Wrong to Double Down on Legal Fight
OpinionGuest Column

Democrats Wrong to Double Down on Legal Fight

A little patience to let Robert Mueller finish his work would have been wise for the DNC.

The Democratic National Committee on Friday, April 20, announced a catchall lawsuit attempting to tie together all opposing actors in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The suit claims damages caused by the Trump campaign, notably its former chairman Paul Manafort; Russia, primarily through its clandestine secret service, the FSB; and, by proxy, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. The plaintiffs allege that those parties cooperated to steal, launder and disseminate DNC emails.

It is notable that the DNC launched a similar effort after the Watergate break-in in 1972. The eventual result was a $75 million settlement reached with the Republican National Committee the same day that President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.

But the cases are quite different.

In the Watergate case, all the perpetrators were domestic and subject to subpoena. In the Wikileaks dump, among the alleged perpetrators are a foreign government and a foreign-based website whose head has taken diplomatic shelter in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy for years. Neither could be compelled to testify, nor do they have any incentive to do so.

Thus, the only parties that could be forced by a U.S. court to provide any sort of testimony, much less recompense, are the Trump campaign and the RNC itself. And proving that the leadership of the campaign knowingly and maliciously conspired with the other accused parties to steal or receive the ill-gotten information is a difficult hill to climb.

The specifics of the lawsuit are not as bad as what its existence reveals. It suggests mismanagement of resources, poor strategic sense and a fundamental absence of learned lessons from a Democratic Party that bungled its way through 2016.

There is no doubt the DNC was significantly wronged over the course of the campaign. The illicit seizure and publication of its internal information deserves to, and must, be punished. However, the belief that such an elaborate web of conspiracy can be proved in court, even at the lower level of a civil trial instead of a criminal case’s reasonable-doubt standard, is an act of pure prospecting.

With the midterm elections less than six months away, maybe the Democrats should concentrate on winning at the polls. (Cartoon by RJ Matson, CQ Roll Call)

The DNC is trying to publicly litigate what special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is investigating in private, wagering that the latter will deliver evidence enough to keep the former afloat without trying the patience of a federal judge. That is one long-shot wager.

The lawsuit’s complete reliance on Mueller makes this an effort in profound speculation.

The very existence of the Democratic lawsuit throws the security of the Mueller investigation further into doubt.

It would be one thing if the DNC case could be isolated from the rest of the political landscape within which it exists, but obviously nothing a political organization does can be free of partisan motives. Thus, by venturing into the legal realm, the Democrats could taint all efforts toward criminal justice with the stench of their partisan aims.

The Mueller team is working to keep itself quarantined from that partisan scent. The appearance of this lawsuit makes that daunting task all the more difficult.

The DNC lawsuit can function only off what Mr. Mueller makes public, so the Democratic Party now directly benefits from the revelation of more information. Mueller, on the other hand, jeopardizes the security of his role every time a part of the investigation is made public, as his choices are subject to the highest scrutiny of motive, as, to a reasonable extent, they ought to be.

The DNC’s lawsuit puts Mueller in the precarious position of politicization by association.

That is what the most craven Republicans and conservative pundits are already attempting to do. Their main effort is to cast all the legal pursuits as nothing but political witch hunts. What better way for the Democrats to prove their point than to launch a legitimate political witch hunt?

There is no reason that this lawsuit could not be pursued in the future. In fact, far in the future, years after Mueller has completed his investigation, supposing that he has discovered evidence that would prove the Democratic claims, the case would be just as salient.

Delaying civil legal action would make the prosecution’s work much easier and thus make the later lawsuit much stronger.

So why is the DNC prioritizing this effort? The motive is hard to discern, but with the effort so expensive in political and regular capital, the return, even with success, not that great, and the consequences so large, justification can’t be found. The reasonable conclusion is that the Democratic priorities are misplaced and misguided.

An all-out war is being waged for public opinion, and whoever wins will define the next generation of American politics. The DNC seems intent to fight with one hand behind its back by insisting that the battle remain within the realm of the law.

The Republican National Committee, by contrast, sees this fight as existential and knows the real battle is in the court of public opinion. In this way, the battle over the president’s actions is crucially asymmetric.

As the Democrats were launching their lawsuit, the Republicans continued their relentless and effective drive to forward their narrative, punctuated by an RNC website dedicated to “Lyin’ Comey.”

Recent Quinnipiac polling suggests that public sentiment is shifting against the special counsel’s investigation, evidence of Republican success in messaging.

In the face of increased wariness that Mueller may be overstepping his bounds, waning belief in the impartiality of the FBI and the rogue former director of that organization embarking on a one-man crusade of moral sanctimony, the answer is not to double down on the legal front, especially not by revealing the most brazenly partisan set of accusations yet made.

It is incumbent upon the Democrats to make the case for the necessity of Mueller’s probe to continue unimpeded. The investigation need not uncover any provable criminality, though, because President Donald Trump has shown through his legal actions how brazenly unfit he is for the highest office in the land.

The Democrats must constantly illuminate how fundamentally unbecoming this president is of the office he holds, his unrepentant moral bankruptcy, and the craven depravity of all those who choose to aid and abet him. This recent legal posturing shows a stupefying ignorance to the centrality of both.

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