Robert Mueller won’t save the American republic from itself. For the moment, we do not have access to the special counsel’s report on Russian intervention in the 2016 election. It is possible that that document’s fine details will prove damaging for Donald Trump. But its “principal conclusions” — as summarized by Attorney General William Barr — have not. According to Barr’s letter to Congress, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” in its efforts to sway the 2016 election “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” And while Mueller did find evidence to support the claim that our president committed obstruction of justice, he did not find said evidence persuasive enough to make a conclusion himself. Instead, he left that prosecutorial decision to Donald Trump’s attorney general, who made precisely the decision that one would expect.
None of this should obscure the fact that Mueller’s investigation had previously produced criminal convictions of the president’s former campaign manager, national security adviser, longtime personal attorney, among others in his extended orbit. Nor should it banish from memory Donald Trump Jr.’s eager acceptance of an offer of aid from the Russian government, or his father’s decision to pursue a development project in Moscow while campaigning on an aberrantly Russia-friendly platform, or the president’s repeated insistence that Vladimir Putin’s word was more truthworthy than the CIA’s, or the myriad other undisputed acts that would, in normal political times, be seen as presidency-defining scandals, in and of themselves.
But it probably will.
The (non-Fox News) cable media’s financial incentives led it to inflate expectations about what the Mueller report would reveal, and some Democratic lawmakers encouraged the hype. Meanwhile, Mueller ostensibly took a narrow interpretation of his mandate, failed to prove the most sensational (and improbable) of the allegations against Trump, and refused to draw any conclusion about the most mundane and plausible one. Now, the president will declare vindication, the mainstream media will likely perform acts of contrition, and Nancy Pelosi’s caucus will have to reevaluate how it wishes to approach a scandal that has now been formally declared a nothingburger.
This is not ideal for the Democratic Party. But it also doesn’t strike me as a very big deal for it, either. Put aside the fact that the Southern District of New York is still pursuing investigations of the president, and that we still haven’t gotten a firsthand glimpse of Mueller’s findings. Let’s say the conventional wisdom hardens, and the whole “Trump-Russia” thing goes down as a dud. I don’t think the outlook for 2020 becomes much different than it was three days ago.
A Mueller report that recommended criminal charges against the president or his family surely would have put wind in Team Blue’s sails. But the absence of such a report is unlikely to durably improve the president’s public standing. Trump’s approval rating has been both remarkably low — and remarkably stable — throughout his time in office. Stock market dips and high-profile legislative failures have occasionally pushed it just under 40 percent. When the president shuts up for a few days, and allows the electorate to focus on the tightening labor market, it ticks up two or three points above 40 percent. But the ceiling on his approval appears sturdy and low. As of late January, 57 percent of voters said they would “definitely not” support Trump in 2020.
And the president doesn’t need a special counsel’s help to provide such voters with fresh reasons to fear and loathe him. On Sunday afternoon, Trump could have taken Mueller’s findings as an opportunity to appeal to his softer skeptics by reinforcing the impression that the “Fake News” media had defamed him — and that he is, in truth, far more normal and reasonable a president than he’s previously appeared. Instead, he called for an investigation into his political rivals.
The vast majority of Americans already know whether they will be voting for or against Donald Trump in 2020. And macroeconomic conditions will do more to determine where the undecideds land than any single news event. In October 2016, the American electorate listened to Donald Trump brag about grabbing women by their genitals without permission. Many American voters suddenly changed their minds about the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton opened up a commanding lead in opinion polls. It took less than two weeks for the public’s memory of that incident to fade, and for polls to revert to their long-running average. Today is March, 24, 2019. It does not seem plausible that a notably uninteresting report released today will have any significant impact on the vote tally on November 3, 2020.
Nevertheless, Democrats do have some thinking to do about how to proceed. They will, of course, demand the release of Mueller’s full report. But many in Pelosi’s caucus have already expressed a neurotic anxiety about appearing too partisan in their oversight of the Trump administration. And to the extent that Trump succeeds in spinning Mueller’s report as exoneration, House Democrats may become even more timid in their probes of the president’s taxes, business practices, and myriad acts of apparent corruption.
This would be a mistake. As I (and my colleague Jonathan Chait) have previously written, Trump’s greatest vulnerability was never his supposed fealty to the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests, but rather, his actual fealty to the financial interests of himself, his family, and his economic class. The immediate victim of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party; the immediate victims of Trump’s documented tax-dodging efforts were middle-class taxpayers. The victims of his decision to outsource governance of the VA to his friends from Mar-a-Lago were American veterans. The victims of his administration’s gutting of consumer protection, environmental, and labor regulations are wide swathes of the American public. These latter, non-Russia scandals have always been more politically promising. They deal with issues that are directly relevant to the general public, and they directly undermine the president’s chosen political persona. Candidate Trump did not pretend to have hawkish views on U.S. policy toward Russia, or a commitment to scrupulous campaign tactics. But he did campaign as a populist who would challenge the global elite that had “robbed our working class.” Democrats should use their control over the House to investigate scandals that draw attention to the president’s venality, and dutiful service to the Davos set.
If Democrats fear that Mueller’s report has damaged their credibility — and that another high-profile probe that leads nowhere could hurt their party further — they could start by investigating the tax crimes that have already been publicly documented. According to the New York Times, the Trump family cheated the federal government out of hundreds of millions in revenue. Surely, this fact has enough implications for tax enforcement policy to justify some televised hearings.
More broadly, past precedent suggests that you don’t need to prove your political rival has done something wrong to derive a benefit from investigating their supposed misdeeds. Despite the fact that their years-long investigation of Benghazi produced no evidence that Hillary Clinton had committed any wrongdoing, the mere existence of the probe was sufficient to persuade a large segment of the public that Clinton was personally responsible for the deaths of American soldiers overseas.
In May 2016, a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University found that a majority of independent voters — and a sizable minority of Democrats — believed that it was either “definitely” or “possibly” true that “Hillary Clinton knew the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi was going to be attacked and did nothing to protect it.”
If House investigations of baseless conspiracy theories can be politically effective, probes of well-established scandals (like his tax dodging, or fraudulent university, or profiteering off the presidency) would presumably be the same.
All of which is to say: Mueller’s apparent dud does not change the fact that Donald Trump is a weak president. And if Democrats take today’s events as an opportunity to focus more tightly on publicizing Trump’s purely domestic scandals, he may soon be an even weaker one.