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The politics of the Mueller report

The upshot: Republicans and Democrats stand to lose with voters.

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a ceremony for the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on April 18, 2019. Credit: SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterst/SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The redacted report by special counsel Robert Mueller has landed on Capitol Hill and generated more questions than answers. Where do we go from here, and what are the potential political traps for both parties in Congress?

U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the report, which was released Thursday morning, begs an even greater question: Is his client the U.S. Constitution or is it President Donald Trump?

First, the politics. The substance of the report itself is unlikely to sway the presidential election in either direction. This is a love-or-loathe electorate. About 35 percent is consistently locked in with Trump no matter what. These are the people he had in mind when he proclaimed he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" and not "lose any voters."

Conversely, nearly 45 percent of the electorate loathes the president. What good he may do is immediately discounted.

That leaves 20 percent in the balance, and the 2020 presidential election largely rests with them. Many of these swing voters supported President Barack Obama in 2008, then backed a tea party Republican Congress to stop him in 2010, then re-elected Obama in 2012, then voted for Trump in 2016, then elected a Democratic majority to stop Trump in 2018.

The Mueller report, in isolation, is unlikely to push them in either direction. They are fiercely independent and usually make judgments closer to Election Day. They’re not consumed by the echo chamber of social media. They’re less tribal than the rest of us.

However, how they perceive the Republican and Democrat response to Mueller going forward presents risks to both parties.

The risk to Democrats in a post-Mueller environment is creating the perception that they are consumed with investigating Trump but not bread-and-butter issues voters care about back at home. Congressional Democrats must be faithful to their constitutional oversight responsibilities. But they also must produce a proactive agenda on reducing prescription drug costs; stopping Republicans from gutting the Affordable Care Act; investing in affordable infrastructure and education; putting the middle class on a longterm trajectory of progress and security; and rebuilding an agricultural economy buffeted by new global pressures.

Republicans bear their own risks. The fact is that the special counsel investigation has resulted in nearly 40 indictments or guilty pleas and four prison sentences. The president has, indeed, been surrounded by people who broke laws, sought to interfere in the 2016 election, lied to investigators, tampered with witnesses and evaded justice. It’s not unreasonable to expect additional revelations by U.S. attorneys or state attorneys general who are now presiding over continued investigations. If congressional Republicans are believed to be white-washing what turns out to be serious crimes, they will likely be punished by swing voters.

There’s a history lesson here. In 1974, when the White House released edited transcripts of President Richard Nixon’s secret taped conversations, most congressional Republicans defended the president. When the House Judiciary Committee voted on articles of impeachment that July, only six out of 17 Republicans on the panel voted for the obstruction-of-justice article. Only after the forced release of the “smoking gun” tapes did House Republicans begin to abandon Nixon in significant numbers. Three months later, the Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

Putting aside the politics brings us to the most important question: Is the attorney general legally and morally obligated to protect the constitution or a president? 

Our country is in a climate in which the rule of law is flouted and the norms of democracy are challenged. The right of certain Americans to cast their votes is suppressed. The responsibility that the constitution invests in Congress to allocate funds is ignored. The clear and explicit legal authority of Congress to examine the tax returns of a president is stonewalled. The emoluments clause that governs a president’s business dealings is disregarded.

The Mueller report won’t answer these questions. Only time will.

Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman from Huntington.

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