The 2020 presidential campaign is more likely to turn on rising health care costs, the dysfunction in the immigration system and the state of the economy than the poisoned legacy of the 2016 election.
But the triumphalism of President Donald Trump and the building power struggle in Washington after Robert Mueller’s investigation show that while both parties are positioning for the next White House race, the bitter recriminations over Russian election meddling are likely to reverberate for months.
“The collusion illusion is over,” Trump told a euphoric crowd in Michigan on Thursday night, at his first rally since the special counsel ended his probe, declaring the “phony, corrupt, disgusting” cloud had been lifted from his White House.
“Total exoneration. Complete vindication,” Trump said, in a retooled and aggressive stump speech that signaled that he will put what he claims is a victory over the “deep state” establishment and “ridiculous bullshit” from Democrats at the center of his re-election message.
Democrats, meanwhile, are now all but claiming the “scaredy cat” Republican administration is engaging in a cover-up over the delay in releasing Mueller’s complete findings because they don’t want Americans to see what could be evidence that is damaging to Trump.
“The sooner they can give us the information, the sooner we can all make a judgment about it,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
Russia on their minds
There had been hopes that an inquiry by a figure as respected as Mueller could provide closure after more than two years of suspicion and recrimination sparked by a Kremlin intelligence operation intended to help Trump win the White House.
And Pelosi had shown signs of wanting to move her party on a potential impeachment scenario, turning instead to the issues that helped Democrats win the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Yet four days after Attorney General William Barr released a summary of the report’s findings, it’s clear Washington is still nowhere near wounds healed by one of the most turbulent periods in its modern history.
The disclosure Thursday that the full Mueller report runs to over 300 pages fueled Democratic suspicions that Barr’s synopsis was a bid to shield Trump from what could still be politically damaging evidence.
It is not clear how much of the report centers on a Russian intelligence operation that was designed to help Trump win power and how much is devoted to the behavior of Trump and his aides during the 2016 election and afterward.
But Democrats are furious that Barr has given Trump the political framing of the report and the chance to claim, wrongly in their view, that it grants him absolution.
“We don’t need you interpreting for us. It was condescending, it was arrogant and it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Pelosi said, referring to Barr.
Pelosi also defended Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, from Trump’s attacks and Republican demands in a hearing Thursday that he resign over claiming Trump colluded with Russians.
“They’re just plain afraid. They’re afraid of the truth, they’re afraid of competence, they’re afraid of a leader who is recognized in our country for being calm, professional, patriotic,” Pelosi said. “I think they’re just scaredy cats. They just don’t know what to do, so they have to make an attack.”
Pelosi was left with a difficult decision after Barr released his summary, since it fell well short of the expectations of some Democrats.
She wants to turn the focus to the kinds of issues – health care and economic inequality, for instance – that helped Democrats win back the House in 2018 as she sets course for the 2020 elections.
And yet, Democrats have a constitutional responsibility to make their own evaluation of the evidence Mueller dug up and to test the validity of conclusions drawn up by Barr, who was a critic of Mueller’s apparent theory of the obstruction case before he was nominated at attorney general.
According to exit polls, the Russia investigation was not among the top four issues that motivated midterm voters. Health care, immigration, the economy and gun policies were far more politically important. Yet surveys this week also show that Barr’s intervention has done nothing to answer the public’s curiosity about the Russia investigation.
Nearly 6 in 10 Americans in a CNN poll released this week want Congress to pursue hearings on Mueller’s report. And nearly 9 in 10 Democrats (88%) say Congress ought to hold hearings, while just 17% of Republicans agree.
In a recent CBS poll, three-quarters of respondents, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, think the entire Mueller report should be released to the public.
The polling data explains the partisan warfare following the end of the Trump investigation.
Democrats have running room among their supporters to keep up the scrutiny on the Justice Department and to exploit evidence they find in the report that reflects poorly on Trump.
Since even Barr noted that Mueller, in not reaching a conclusion on the obstruction charge, had not exonerated Trump, there are likely politically damaging aspects of the report, even if they do not rise to the level of impeachment.
Schiff in the crosshairs
Republicans also have good political reasons to use Mueller’s exit from the stage to their advantage, since the sense that Trump has been vindicated and is now being unfairly targeted resonates with the GOP base.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pivoted off the Barr letter to portray Democratic oversight efforts as futile and an example of overreaching – a message that is likely to sustain the GOP all the way until the 2020 elections.
“Does America truly believe or does Adam Schiff truly believe he knows something more than Mueller; that 40 FBI agents, 19 attorneys, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 witnesses looking into 13 different countries and saying no collusion at all?” McCarthy said.
Schiff, who is not ready to concede that Trump did not collude with Russians, has emerged as a top target for the pro-Trump conservative media machine, which has pivoted seamlessly from demonizing Mueller to attacking the President’s political enemies.
Trump gave his troops their marching orders with an early morning tweet.
“Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!” Trump wrote.
Hours later, Schiff was under siege in his own committee.
Republican Mike Conaway, the Republican who led the committee’s Russia investigation during the previous GOP majority, read out an extraordinary letter accusing Schiff of abusing his position to promote “false information.”
“Your actions both past and present are incompatible with your duty as chairman,” Conaway said. “We have no faith in your ability to discharge duties.”
But Schiff dug in, asking Republicans if they thought it was “OK” for members of Trump’s family and campaign team to meet Russians in Trump Tower in 2016 promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think it’s OK. I think It’s immoral, I think it’s unethical, I think it’s unpatriotic, and yes, I think it’s corrupt, and evidence of collusion,” Schiff said. “And the day we do think that’s OK, is the day we look back and say that is the day America lost its way.”
Once again, Washington is tying itself in bitter, partisan knots in a reminder, if one was needed, that the Russian effort to throw a spanner in America’s democratic institutions is still delivering.