When news dropped that Robert Mueller had handed in his long-awaited report to the attorney general and no new charges against anyone, including Donald Trump, would be filed, the country's websites and headlines overflowed with the BREAKING news. The New York Times called Mueller's conclusion that the president hadn't conspired with Russia "a significant political victory for Mr. Trump." In Vox, it was "a massive political victory." The conservative Drudge Report declared "Trump Wins!" while MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote, "The Mueller War is over, and President Trump won." Resistance figures who had been counting on Mueller to save America from Trump were thrown into a tailspin, while media critics on the left and right, along with skeptics of a busted legal system, claimed that the press had overhyped the whole thing from the get-go.
If you watched cable news or spent time on political Twitter, you were likely blasted with take after take about the not-yet-released Mueller report. There is tons to argue about, from whether the full report should be handed over to Congress and eventually the public (as Democrats are demanding) to whether Attorney General William Barr mischaracterized Mueller's findings to whether Republicans should try to launch an investigation into the investigation. While there are plenty of good questions to be asked and answered, there's a kind of meta-question hovering in the background: How many Americans really cared about Mueller and his report in the first place?
Barr's summary of Mueller's findings came out on Sunday. But the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's Big Win has not caused much movement in Trump's approval rating, at least in the initial tracking polls. Maybe that's because, as a CBS poll found, Americans want to read the whole report and aren't sure whether Trump is really exonerated. Maybe that's because other surveys have shown that most people have set views of Trump that aren't likely to change. But some opinions on Trump have shifted over time—his approval rating on the economy has gone down 11 points since June, according to a CNBC poll, even as other polls show his overall approval rating has stayed steady over that period.
Maybe what's going on is that a lot of people genuinely don't care about Trump's personal conduct as much as they care about how his policies might effect them. For evidence of this disinterest, look back to the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton's campaign certainly wasn't devoid of policy discussions, but its ads tended to skew toward attacking Trump's personal failings. This seemed like a good idea at the time: For instance, a survey found that an overwhelming majority of voters disliked a video of Trump making fun of a disabled reporter, so Democrats highlighted that clip at every opportunity. The problem for Clinton was that on Election Day, not enough voters found Trump's bad qualities to be disqualifying.
The sprawling Russia scandal certainly seems more important than Trump's personal quirks, however distasteful they might be. After all, the national security adviser lied to the FBI and Trump's former campaign chairman and personal lawyer are going to prison thanks to the Mueller investigation. But regular Americans were likely less focused on the story than the elite media: It wasn't an issue in the midterms and 2020 Democratic primary voters aren't asking candidates about it. According to HuffPost Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen, it didn't come up when that outlet traveled the country on its "Listen to America" tour:
This is a fairly rational position for people to take: Unlike healthcare policy or Trump's tax cut package, there's very little chance that the Mueller investigation will impact your life, unless you get a tattoo of the special counsel. And if you were sort of half-following the story, is news that Trump likely won't face impeachment after all that's happened likely to shock you? Or would you just shrug and get on with your life?
The media will continue to cover the debate over the Mueller report and the other investigations Trump is facing—the possibility of top officials resigning or being indicted for crimes is an objectively important matter. But the issue may not motivate voters in large numbers. That means that Democrats can decry Trump for alleged crimes, Trump can denounce the Democrats and the media for being irrationally opposed to him, but that constant battle may just be the background noise of American politics at this point.
Perhaps realizing that they needed other messages, both Trump and the Democrats were ready to move on after the Barr letter, with both sides eager to talk about other issues, primarily healthcare. Maybe the Mueller investigation ended with a whimper. Or maybe people just weren't listening in the first place.
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