AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Mueller Report Meets American Tribalism

The substance of the report was deeply damaging to Trump, but the political fallout puts more pressure on Democrats.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (left), John Barrasso, and John Thune stand with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Jan. 9.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
April 21, 2019, 6 a.m.

The Mueller report offered a damning indictment of the Trump presidency. It demonstrates, in excruciating detail, the Trump campaign’s unseemly ties to Russian operatives and the president’s efforts to cover up the truth. Trump escaped legal liability, but there’s a moral and ethical stain on his presidency.

Yet in the aftermath of the document’s release, Republicans were united in dismissing the severity of its findings while Democrats found themselves divided over the path forward.

In our topsy-turvy political world, that counts as a win—or at least a draw—for Republicans. Democrats risk overreaching if they call for impeachment hearings. They invite backlash if they seem more interested in Russian interference than pocketbook issues. Republicans, with nearly all of their voters behind the president, can echo Trump’s call that this was a partisan witch hunt and suffer few political consequences.

If there’s a lesson in Trump’s madness, it’s this: Repeatedly lying to the American public isn’t that politically damaging. By conditioning a base to trust him over the mainstream media, Trump is betting that a rock-solid base and a radicalizing opposition is good enough to win a second term. As National Review’s David French put it, “the bar for his conduct has sunk so low that anything other than outright criminality is too often brushed aside as relatively meaningless.”

One of the most reliable maxims in politics is that the party that’s divided is the one that’s losing. And on the issue of how to react to the report, the Democrats are split on the direction going forward.

The party’s powerful investigators, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, are itching to subpoena top Trump officials and investigate the president further. But House Democratic leaders are signaling that they have no interest in initiating impeachment hearings. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer declared Thursday that impeachment was “not worthwhile” and is content to let voters have the final say in the matter.

Swing-district Democrats have been conditioned to avoid any talk of impeachment, attuned to national polls showing clear majorities opposed to such drastic measures. A near-majority of Americans (47 percent) said they didn’t even want Congress to hold hearings, according to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (conducted before the Mueller report was released).

So where does that leave us?

One, it’s safe to assume that the Mueller report won’t dramatically change Trump’s political standing. He received little boost after Attorney General William Barr’s favorable summary of the Mueller report, and he probably won’t take much of a hit after the more damaging details of Trump’s misbehavior emerged. Many of the report’s findings were already revealed by the media, and didn’t come as a shock to most voters.

Two, Democrats nevertheless would be foolish to stop talking about Trump’s misconduct as a part of their messaging. As I wrote after Barr’s summary of the report, it’s the background noise that has made Trump unpopular at a time of relative peace and prosperity. They can’t allow the small number of persuadable voters to believe that Trump received a clean bill of health from the report, as he claims.

Three, Democrats will need to use the hearings to make a methodical case that Trump is unfit for the presidency. They’ll need to illustrate the dysfunction within the administration without engaging in conspiratorial speculation. That will be a difficult task, given that these high-profile hearings typically descend into partisan fiascos. The most extreme voices typically generate the most attention. A lot will be riding on Schiff and Nadler’s ability to keep things in order.

Finally, Republicans start the 2020 elections in competitive shape despite the endless specter of scandal. Trump thought the Mueller investigation would end his presidency. Now that the report is out, it’s clear that not only has Trump survived but has a fighting chance to win a second term. His latest approval numbers, while underwater, are fairly comparable to Barack Obama’s at the same time in their presidencies and he boasts a base that’s as loyal as ever.

The 2020 presidential election could well be between a president who welcomed Russian assistance for political gain and an opponent who spoke fondly of the communist Soviet Union. In his report, Mueller illustrated the threat that Russia poses to American democracy. Voters don’t seem to be paying much attention.

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