WASHINGTON -- After nearly two years of railing against the special counsel’s Russia probe, President Donald Trump is using the end of the investigation to rally support for his 2020 re-election effort, all as recent polls show a majority of Americans are still unsure if he was cleared of wrongdoing.
In fundraising appeals on Twitter and in a speech last week before supporters, Trump has seized on Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the probe’s findings to declare vindication from an investigation he has often cast as a partisan “witch hunt.”
“The Russia hoax is finally dead,” Trump told a roaring crowd of supporters in Michigan last Thursday, at his first campaign rally since special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his probe on March 22.
“Now we FIGHT BACK!” read a campaign fundraising request blasted out via text message and email by the president’s campaign headquarters shortly after Barr issued his summary.
“Total vindication.” tweeted Trump’s campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh.
Meanwhile, the ever-growing field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have cast Trump’s remarks as premature as they call on Barr to release all of Mueller’s 300-page report.
Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s report said Mueller did not find evidence that Trump or his campaign criminally conspired or coordinated with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, but Mueller stopped short of exonerating Trump on the question of whether the president sought to obstruct the Russia probe.
Mueller wrote “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” on the issue of obstruction of justice. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after reviewing Mueller’s work, ultimately concluded that he evidence “is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Mike Dawidziak, a Republican campaign strategist who worked on the campaign of the late President George H.W. Bush, said as both major parties “look to claw out some political advantage” to the end of Mueller’s investigation, the probe itself as a campaign issue is unlikely to compel moderate swing voters to vote for or against Trump.
“If you like Donald Trump before, you still like him, and if you didn’t like Donald Trump before, you still don’t like him,” said Dawidziak. “If you don’t like Donald Trump, you don’t like him because of his stance on immigration and things like that, you’re not making up your mind about him based on what’s in the Mueller report.”
While the Mueller investigation “was a cloud hanging over [Trump’s] head for a long time,” the issue itself was unlikely “to be a great, winning issue that would drive voters to the polls in the first place,” said Jessica Proud, a Republican campaign strategist and spokeswoman for the New York state GOP.
“Does it impact their pocketbook?” Proud said of the issues that resonate with voters. “People want to know that their president wasn’t colluding with a foreign government but at the same standpoint, it’s not going to be that overriding issue that’s driving them out to the polls.”
Proud said “the best thing [Trump] can do is parlay” the end of the Mueller investigation “into a policy success ... on an issue that is not partisan, something like infrastructure. If he can use the wind he has on his back a little bit on this issue to parlay it into some other sort of legislative success, then he could get some momentum going again that impacts people in their daily lives.”
National polls conducted after Barr issued his summary indicate the majority of voters polled still question whether Mueller’s investigation completely exonerated the president as Trump has claimed.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 40 percent of respondents believed Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report still did not clear Trump of wrongdoing, compared to 29 percent who said they believed it did. Thirty-one percent were undecided, in the poll conducted between March 23 and March 27.
"The public is still in a wait-and-see view of this investigation and what it means for Trump,” said Jeff Horwitt of the Democratic firm Hart Research, which conducted the poll along with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
More than half of voters polled in a NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll -- 56 percent -- said they believe many questions remain unanswered after Barr’s initial summary, and do not think the report’s findings clear Trump.
The poll, conducted between March 25 and March 27, found that 57 percent of Americans think President Trump either did something illegal or unethical in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a slight increase from the 53 percent who shared the same opinion last July.
“On the question of any wrongdoing by President Trump in his dealings with President Putin, Americans are pretty much where they were last July even after months and months of headlines,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.