If only for a moment, Robert Mueller may have made America great again.

We now possess the best possible evidence that the special counsel’s 22-month “collusion” investigation was never the “witch hunt” President Donald Trump habitually and disgracefully called it. The proof is that, in the end, Mueller found no witches — no co-conspirators in the Trump campaign in league with satanic Russian powers to hijack America’s 2016 presidential election.

A real “witch hunt” always finds what it’s looking for.

One of my most esteemed and candid liberal acquaintances confided last week that he was “paralyzed with disappointment” at the prospect that Trump may now “get away with everything.”

The disappointment is understandable, and probably more widely shared than admitted. But paralysis may not prove its most common symptom. A frenetic “hunt” may well continue, with American progressives (and deeply invested “never-Trump” Republicans) ceaselessly searching for some alternate form of dark sorcery to explain what is to them Trump’s still mystifying election and survival in office this long — amid relative peace and prosperity no less.

“America is already great,” declared then-President Barack Obama in 2016, to thunderous applause at the Democratic National Convention. That theme of admiration for pre-Trumpian America (aside from a few “deplorables”) became popular among liberals for a time in those innocent days (there’s a line of caps, shirts and coffee mugs bearing the slogan). It was a rejoinder to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” battle cry, which likely has moved more merchandise.

Anyway, progressives’ feeling about America has changed since Trump’s election. Extravagant room for improvement has been discovered by the chorus of Democratic presidential hopefuls, by the young “democratic socialist” caucus roiling Congress, and by Green New Dealers everywhere. From one progressive wing or another, we’re being introduced to a breathtaking makeover agenda.

America’s economy of course must be sweepingly transformed, along with its health care and educational systems. In politics, for starters, electioneering spending must be put under government control and the Electoral College must be abolished. Culturally, the emphasis is to be, not on celebrating how great America already is, but on paying reparations for sins of the past and renaming ever more lakes, buildings, parks and schools that pay undeserved tribute to the many villains of U.S. history.

But just now, before the acrimony of the 2020 presidential campaign consumes the nation entirely, we should pause to let the Mueller probe’s completion remind us of one of the main things that really was great about America long before the current political malaise descended — and that has endured even these past few years.

Mueller’s work, against long odds, has affirmed America’s devotion to the rule of law — to the existence, when the system is working, of a bright line separating the political mud wrestling that is a necessary evil of self-government from the principled enforcement of law that is the foundation of a free society. It’s the doctrine — not unique to America but realized here as well as anywhere in human history — that absolutely no one can rise above the law and absolutely no one can fall below it. No matter how hard he tries.

Few American leaders or institutions have remained untarnished by the staggeringly shabby “Russiagate” affair. Trump’s reckless conduct raised legitimate questions, and his relentless denigration of the legal system, especially of Mueller and his team, surely seemed like the eruptions of a perpetually guilty mind. The numerous convictions Mueller obtained of Trump associates, albeit not for collusion, may help explain it.

Meanwhile, politicized hanky-panky of various kinds within the Justice Department and the FBI — not least former FBI Director James Comey’s weird grandstanding — understandably fueled “deep-state” suspicions of sabotage among Trump’s defenders.

American journalists, as a group seized by an unprecedented hostility toward this charmless president, engaged in limitless speculation and reliance on anonymous sourcing and too often abandoned even the pretense of impartiality in reporting as well as commentary.

And yet, despite the astonishing whirlpool of pressures put in motion by a divisive president and his overwrought foes, Mueller and his prosecutors were, after all, allowed to complete their work. Obviously eager to stop them, Trump could not. They went steadily, slowly and quietly about their painstaking probe, allowing precious few leaks. And they stayed focused on the facts and the law — and on the exacting standards of proof required to support criminal charges in America.

Politicians and pundits can say almost whatever they please in a free country. But Mueller remembered that a prosecutor, wielding the awesome power of the state, is bound by the law.

All that is what’s great about America.

Mueller’s “no collusion” conclusion gains credibility, in an odd way, from the fact that his assessment of the obstruction of justice question is ambiguous. The fullest possible lawful release of his report will, one hopes, clarify things. But for now it is curious and unsettling that Mueller declined to decide whether Trump should be charged with obstruction for firing Comey and other acts (Attorney General William Barr concluded he should not, based on Mueller’s evidence). It’s almost reminiscent of Comey’s strange commentary on Hillary Clinton’s sloppy handling of State Department e-mails back when he announced no charges against her in 2016.

But if Mueller could be criticized for exceeding a prosecutor’s proper role in wanting to signal disapproval of Trump’s actions even though they fall short of criminality, he also signals something else with his “no decision-decision” on obstruction. He makes it clear that no comparably close call is involved on the issue of whether Trump conspired with a foreign power to steal an election — the question of greatest political importance.

In all of this, the question of greatest importance for the nation has been whether the recent erosion of confidence in American justice and its institutions could be arrested. Mueller has made progress on that vital front.


D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.