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.