Five years ago, Republicans set up a congressional committee to investigate the deaths of four Americans in a 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, focusing particularly on the role of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton during the crisis.
Two years later, it had spent $7m, produced an 800-page report, and questioned Clinton in a marathon 11-hour hearing. It did not, however, uncover wrongdoing by either her or the Obama administration.
Yet the sense that something shady had occurred, that Clinton was somehow to blame for those deaths, clung to her during the 2016 presidential race, and the private email server uncovered as part of the probe is, by many estimates, what sank her campaign.
The Benghazi saga is worth recalling now, as Donald Trump celebrates the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.
“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total Exoneration” tweeted the President after the attorney general William Barr published a letter to Congress summarising the findings.
This is not entirely accurate. According to the letter, Mueller found that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2016 election, with a disinformation campaign and series of cyber attacks, but that Trump did not coordinate or conspire with Moscow.
However, no conclusion is reached on obstruction of justice: Mueller explicitly says that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”.
Obstruction of justice is a charge that usually concerns actions or conversations behind closed doors.
What do you do when someone uses a press conference to invite Moscow to hack his opponent’s emails, says in a TV interview that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he fired the FBI director, and keeps tweeting that an ongoing investigation is a “witch hunt” that should be shut down?
With all this evidence in the public domain, the speculation that Mueller could charge Trump with a criminal offence reached a global fever pitch, fuelled by a string of indictments against Trump associates since May 2017.
Barr’s letter has therefore been a bitter disappointment and embarrassed many of Trump’s critics – including some in the media who had already made up their own minds about his guilt.
But before the Democrats get too disheartened or the President does too much triumphant tweeting, here are some things to remember.
First, there is no such crime as “collusion”. As lawyer and legal commentator Renato Mariotti has pointed out, Mueller’s was always more of a counterintelligence mission than a criminal one.
The crime of conspiracy, on which Trump has been cleared, is fiendishly difficult to prove, as it involves demonstrating intent as well as actions.
Rather than go down this road, Mueller has focused on lesser crimes. He has indicted 34 individuals close to the President and convicted seven, including his personal lawyer, with charges such as obstruction of justice, electoral finance violations, and lying to investigators.
These may not have revealed a bombshell of sedition, but they are far from politically harmless.
Thanks to Mueller, we now know that Trump campaign figures, including his son, held clandestine meetings with Kremlin officials in 2016; that its former chair shared polling data with a Russian operative; and that the Trump Organization was pursuing a luxury real estate project in Moscow during the election campaign, which Trump subsequently lied about.
Beyond Russia, the investigation revealed how Trump’s lawyer paid hush money to an alleged mistress one month before polling day, not only breaking campaign finance laws, but enabling a slew of raids and subpoenas concerning the President’s businesses.
The murky links between foreign governments and the secretive Trump Organization that continues to operate even as its chief sits in the Oval Office – lucrative business deals in countries whose leaders the President has broken diplomatic protocols to cosy up to – are beginning to be unravelled.
This is the real treasure trove for congressional Democrats, who have the right to demand everything that Mueller has found and launch as many probes as they like.
It is the pretext they need to keep the spotlight on the President’s finances, business ploys, and links to Russia until voters head to the polls in the 2020 election.
They could potentially even force Mueller’s full report to be made public – as was the Starr report into Bill Clinton that turned the Monica Lewinsky affair into an international scandal.
Will it be enough? Not without the right candidate, a coherent economic and domestic policy agenda, and a vision for modern-day America. The legal nuances will be lost on most people, so a campaign based around rerunning the investigation is a high-risk strategy.
But again, look at the Benghazi inquiry. It failed to prove misconduct against Clinton, but ultimately dashed her presidential hopes. The Democrats have the House of Representatives, they have the playbook, and now they have the ammunition.
Trump may be celebrating, but behind the scenes, the 2020 race has just kicked off.