When Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Congress released on Sunday that Robert Mueller had found no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 campaign, it prompted widespread Republican glee. Even if the letter did not indicate, as Trump tweeted, "Complete and Total EXONERATION" (on the question of whether he committed obstruction of justice, Barr's letter quotes Mueller as writing, “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”), it appears that any liberal fantasy of Mueller bringing down Trump was just that—a fantasy.
Since the very beginning of Trump's presidency—which he kicked off by casting doubt on the idea that Russia even engaged in hacking to influence the election—the Russia story has infused the country with a sense of doubt and stress. People who followed the news were asked to hold several different scenarios of what may have taken place in their heads depending on who they were listening to, with each possibility containing massive implications for the nation. Was Trump a Russian agent? Were Mueller and the "deep state" working to unseat Trump? Were all those contacts between campaign aides and Russia innocuous? How did the FBI inquiry into the campaign begin? As the Mueller and congressional investigations into these matters proceeded, reporting from journalists uncovered new facts and the narrative sprawled to the point where keeping up with all things Russia was basically a second job for some news consumers.
Now it appears many of those narratives have collapsed. Barr's letter is not likely the last word—the Mueller report itself, or a portion of it, will still probably come out and provide further insight—but it seems as though the special counsel will not provide the raw materials for Democrats to begin the impeachment process. The country (and cable news pundits) can now move on, a result that many Democrats may be cheering.
There was good reason for people to pay attention to the Russia saga, which included such episodes as a national security adviser being forced to resign for lying to the FBI and the vice president, the abrupt firing of an FBI director, and a whole host of misrepresentations from the Trump team. But those stories, often confusing and revealed drip by drip over time, never made collusion a top issue among rank-and-file Democrats.
"The average voter wasn’t sitting around waiting for the Mueller report the way Washington was," said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic consultant, in an email. "They are looking at a system that is fundamentally broken, with a President who they know can go off the rails at any moment."
Meanwhile, an extremely vocal minority of Americans, seemingly all of them active on Twitter, became fascinated with the subject, resulting in some wild theories and aggressive rhetoric. Some fixated on a "dossier" of unconfirmed intelligence compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele that included a bizarre story about Trump paying prostitutes in Moscow to pee on a bed once slept in by Barack Obama. A cult of personality developed around Mueller. On social media, conspiracy theorists spun nonsensical stories about how impeachment had already begun. On cable news, less nonsensical speculation ran rampant. Some congressional Democrats have introduced articles of impeachment both before and after they retook the House in the midterms. Congressman Adam Schiff said there was "evidence in plain sight" of collusion; Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib promised to "impeach the motherfucker."
But though the voices of "Russiagate" have been loud, they haven't actually come to dominate the Democratic Party, despite the efforts of people like billionaire pro-impeachment activist Tom Steyer. The wave elections of 2018 could be chalked up to a general dislike of Trump, but Democrats won on a message that largely focused on healthcare, not Russia.
"Making your community a better place to live by improving healthcare, shortening commutes, and paying for public schools is a far more compelling message than supporting the [special] counsel on Twitter," said Aaron Kleinman, a former VICE contributor who works for Future Now Fund, a progressive group that focuses on state elections. "2019 and 2020 elections will still hinge on those issues."
After their midterm victory, the Democrats' legislative agenda did not include impeachment. In fact, their leaders made a point of saying that though they were committed to investigating the administration, they wouldn't rush to impeach. That strategy lines up with polls finding that a majority of Americans don't regard impeachment as a top issue; even when passion for impeachment spiked last month according to a Morning Consult poll, only 53 percent of Democrats thought it was a “top priority.” It's just not something voters or leaders—as opposed to pundits—are focused on. "Otherwise Steyer would be our nominee," said longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in an email.
In the wake of the Barr letter, all the leading Democratic presidential contenders called for the release of the full Mueller report, but several Democratic operatives told the New York Times that candidates shouldn't fixate on the issue, which voters don't appear to be interested in anyway. The attitude of many campaigns might be summed up by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said on MSNBC over the weekend, “This campaign can't be about [Trump]. Part of how we lost our way in 2016 was it was much too much about him and it left a lot of people back home saying, ‘O.K., but nobody’s talking about me.’”
"Despite the initial fears, Democrats haven't made Mueller their central message. Far from it. They've focused on the devastating impacts of Trump's tax cuts, the GOP's obsession with stripping children of health insurance and the impending climate crisis," said progressive activist and strategist Sean McElwee (who has written for VICE) in a Twitter message. "The problem is the billionaires who run cable networks who would prefer that message never reach voters."
In the short term, Republicans will probably frame the Mueller report's conclusions as proof that the Mueller investigation was a "witch hunt" all along, a catch-22 that no experienced conservative talking head will trip over. But in the longer term, Trump is still going to be fighting for his political life in 2020. Americans don't dislike Trump because they think he's a Russian stooge; they dislike him, according to a Quinnipiac poll because they think he's dishonest, doesn't care about them, and is a bad role model. Major portions of his agenda, including the attempted Affordable Care Act rollback and the tax cut package, have also been very unpopular.
That's why it's likely that as the Mueller report fades into the rearview mirror, it will be Republicans, not Democrats, trying to keep the Russia story in the news. Democratic candidates for office will want to talk about healthcare and the economy and scandals unrelated to Russia—like the allegations of fraud and other illegal activity that have dogged the Trump Organization for years. The GOP is less eager to move on—Trump has floated the idea of looking into "the other side" of the "illegal takedown." Donald Trump Jr. has endorsed an investigation of the Muller investigation, while Senator Lindsey Graham apparently wants to revive inquiries into the Clinton email scandal.
To combat that message, Democratic strategists say the party might take a hint from Trump's "drain the swamp" message in 2016 and denounce corruption more broadly.
"Impeachment has never been at the forefront of concerns, but Donald Trump’s Presidency IS at the top of Democratic minds," said Pollock. "The culture of corruption around Donald Trump has led to countless indictments and convictions already and that speaks to the larger notion that this man has done not one thing to drain the swamp as he called it. He seems to have filled the swamp with more gators and corrosive critters."
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