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Donald Trump, Robert Mueller, and a 'boiling frog' problem

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016.

The cruel fable about boiling a frog has been around for centuries, and it's become a useful metaphor. The idea is pretty straightforward: if someone were to throw a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock would be immediate and the frog would leap out.

But if the frog is placed in tepid water, and the temperature increased gradually, the frog would slowly acclimate to the hotter temperatures -- until it's too late.

Putting aside whether the fable is true, as Donald Trump and his allies celebrate Attorney General William Barr's summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings, the "boiling frog" problem comes to mind for a reason.

Some have suggested in the wake of Barr's memo that the entire Mueller probe was folly and the underlying scandal was a mirage. But to see recent developments that way is to play the role of the frog, adapting over time to rising temperatures. The Washington Post published an analysis several weeks ago that's relevant anew.

Imagine if, instead of Mueller releasing new public indictments as he went along, leveraging criminal charges to obtain more information from the targets of his probe, he instead had kept his information private. Imagine if he and his lawyers had been working in quiet for 20 months, submitting expenses to the Department of Justice and suffering the president's tweeted ferocity.And then, after all of that, they suddenly produced a dozen indictments and plea deals running into hundreds of pages, detailing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's illegal and questionable financial dealings, those of his deputy Rick Gates, full details of Russia's alleged efforts to influence social media and to steal electronic information from Democratic targets and detailed a half-dozen people who admitted to lying to federal investigators.

News consumers and the rest of the political world have watched the process surrounding the special counsel investigation play out episodically, day by day, indictment by indictment, court hearing by court hearing.

As Mueller raised the temperature, we acknowledged the developments, adapted to the new conditions, and awaited the next stage in the process. When the scandal intensified a little more, we again acknowledged the developments, adapted once more, and so on.

But imagine if Mueller and his team had said literally nothing for the last two years -- no indictments, no court appearance, just absolute silence -- leaving us to wonder whether anything of note was happening.

And then imagine we learned all at once about felony charges against Donald Trump's campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, White House national security adviser, and personal attorney -- each of whom have either been convicted, pleaded guilty, or both. Imagine if we also simultaneously learned that Russia really did attack the U.S. elections in 2016 in order to help put the president in power, and the special counsel also charged a sizable contingent of Russian operatives.

If all of this came out at once, the scope of the political crisis gripping the White House would be incalculable. If Republicans were to respond to such circumstances by standing, arms around shoulders, singing "We Are The Champions," they'd be laughed at, and for good reason.

Of course, the hypothetical scenario isn't how we learned of these developments. There wasn't one immediate shock, there were incremental increases to the temperature, to the point that some may have lost sight of the developments that unfolded along the way.