Donald Trump takes victory lap over Mueller result. Will it help him in 2020?
After more nearly two years, Americans across the country finally have some insight into special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. AP Domestic
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump scored a huge political victory after special counsel Robert Mueller absolved him of conspiring with Russia to swing the 2016 election. The big question is whether the president can use the special counsel's finding to boost his re-election prospects.
Trump is already harvesting early fruits of his victory. The outcome of the nearly two-year investigation removes a cloud hanging over his 2020 race and frees up time for him to focus on his policy agenda. Congressional Republicans may be less likely to distance themselves from him. Congressional Democrats have to rethink how hard to go after Trump in their own investigations.
“My advice to the president for whatever it’s worth is you’re probably stronger today than you’ve been anytime in your presidency," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, said Monday. "The question for you is, how do you use it?"
In many ways, the political landscape remains frozen.
Trump still faces a fragmented Congress in a politically divided nation that will view Mueller's report through partisan lenses – unless there are hidden mines waiting to explode from other investigations into Trump and his businesses.
Having struggled to expand his popularity beyond an enthusiastic base, Trump needs to win over skeptical swing voters while fending off a large field of Democrats who have lined up to challenge him and attack him at every turn.
"I don’t plan on voting for Trump, but I say that without knowing who the other candidate is," said Mike Robertson, a self-described independent from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I can see a scenario where I really bite my lip and vote for Trump."
Robertson said Mueller's findings won't be a factor for him since there was no "hardcore evidence" of collusion.
The 2020 campaign will probably center on issues such as the economy, taxes, health care and immigration – not to mention the president's polarizing persona.
"I don’t see [the Mueller probe] fundamentally changing near, or longer-term, politics," said veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "It was an additional headache, a question mark that Republicans faced, an additional opportunity for Democrats to talk about the president’s alleged corruption and the like.
“But when you strip Mueller away,” he added, “it’s still a deeply divided country with two very different parties having very different views of the direction of the country and how to treat Donald Trump.”
Here's how the conclusion of the investigation could help Trump – or not.
Republicans predict the Mueller findings, as framed by Attorney General William Barr, will lift the president’s re-election chances next year. But any boost will probably be no more than a short-term sugar high, several political and polling experts said.
“It has basically no impact. Not one iota,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute in New Jersey. “The voters who are paying attention to the Mueller report already had strong opinions about Donald Trump one way or the other or the other. (And) even though we don’t know the details, it won’t change (the minds of) any of them.”
Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and commentator, called the findings “a huge boon for Trump in 2020, as it enhanced his credibility and made the Democrats look like unhinged conspiracy theorists.”
Another Republican consultant, Alex Conant of Firehouse Strategies, agreed.
“We can all breathe a little easier with this behind us,” he said.
Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, expects the impact in November 2020 will be minimal given the scarcity of undecided voters and the fact that both sides are deeply entrenched.
“What it gets down to is rooting for your team. It doesn’t matter who the captain is or who the star player is,” he said of public reaction. “It’ll motivate Republicans more so and may dispirit Democrats a bit, but I don’t think it will change minds.”
With the Mueller investigation behind him, Trump can focus more closely on his legislative agenda, which includes infrastructure changes and winning congressional approval of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
That doesn’t mean getting that agenda through Congress will be any easier. The opposite may be true, said Republican political strategist Ron Bonjean.
“The results of the Mueller report will only divide the Democratic-led House further apart from Trump, and the likelihood of him signing high-profile legislation is growing dimmer by the day,” Bonjean said.
Jennings doesn’t see much hope for Trump scoring any wins on legislation “because Democrats just can’t bring themselves to work with this president.”
Conant sees a glimmer of hope.
“If Mueller had found evidence of wrongdoing, then Trump could have forgotten about getting anything else through Congress,” he said.
Democrats will continue to fight much of Trump’s agenda, Conant said, but now there is at least an opening for bipartisanship on trade, prescription drug costs and infrastructure.
Democrats must reassess
The strategy for handling Mueller's conclusions has the potential to divide Democrats. Some may want to pursue Trump investigations more aggressively than others.
Even before Barr released his summary of Mueller's report, Democrats were grappling with concerns that investigating Trump could overshadow their agenda on kitchen-table issues like healthcare and jobs. Some liberals wanted the House to move toward impeachment while members from districts where Trump is popular took a wait-and-see approach.
In an interview with USA TODAY last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed calls by liberals for impeachment and said the evidence would have to be so overwhelming that Republicans got on board or else it would be a gift to Trump.
Immediately after the Mueller findings were made public, Democrats appeared to be more in sync. Nearly all called for Mueller's report to be made public and there was little talk of impeachment. Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has previously said she would support impeachment, took a much broader approach.
“He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated,” she tweeted Sunday.
Democrats can still move forward with their investigations, said Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. But they “need to proceed very carefully," he said.
The party is likely to face competing pressures from voters.
Richard Pineda, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, said Democrats have a responsibility to the Constitution "to ensure that all these layers and threads have been addressed."
"The president was never questioned in the investigation," Pineda said. "That means Congress still has the duty to pursue investigations as necessary."
But Andrew Mackowiak of Green Bay, Wisc., hopes the issue is put to bed.
"I think a lot of people are just tired of everything that's going on," he said.
If Mueller had found collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, it could have created havoc inside the GOP, said Conant, the GOP consultant.
“It would have torn the party apart,” he said. “Instead, Republicans are more united behind Trump than ever before.”
Senate Republicans, in fact, were quick to react Sunday after the attorney general released a four-page summary of Mueller’s report.
Some, including those facing competitive re-elections in 2020, urged the release of more information.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican who gained a primary challenger this week, said Mueller’s report should be released “in as complete a form as possible.” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the other senator running for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, made a similar remark.
But Gardner’s statement also echoed a main point of many other Republicans: Let’s move on.
“It is time for Congress to move forward and get to work for the American people,” Gardner tweeted.
Many Republicans were already reluctant to break with Trump because of his popularity with the base, and that is likely to continue.
“I’m sure he feels he can run roughshod over all of them,” said Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Without an indictment, this just simply strengthens his control over the base and, therefore, particularly cows senators up for re-election in 2020.”
In fact, Graham announced Monday that the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs will examine the origins of the FBI investigation of Trump and his campaign. Several congressional Republicans have suggested that political motivations may have played a role in the launch of the Russia probe but Justice Department officials have emphatically denied that.
And in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., should step down after promoting allegations of collusion between Trump and the Russian government.
Contributing: Robin Opsahl, Des Moines Register; Doug Schneider, Green Bay Press-Gazette; Monroe Trombly, Mansfield News Journal; Jesse Garza, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aaron Montes, El Paso Times.