The political fallout from the Mueller report may be more clear-cut than its substantive conclusions.
By removing lingering doubts about the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency, the report gives the president a short-term talking point. But it also ensures the principal issue in the 2020 presidential election will be the policy and institutional damage he has done while in office, rather than how he got there.
And it puts the onus on congressional Democrats to put their principal focus on the same kinds of issues — health care, threats to voting, the environment and income inequality — that the party’s large field of presidential hopefuls has been stressing in its visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and the other initial 2020 battlegrounds.
Sunday’s summary by Attorney General Bill Barr said special counsel Robert Mueller reached a clear-cut verdict on the most important issue on its plate, that Trump and his associates did not help the extensive Russian efforts to subvert democracy in the 2016 election.
But it also said that Mueller left open the related question of whether Trump obstructed justice in his never-ending campaign to denigrate the special counsel’s two-year investigation.
That gave Trump and his allies a clear exoneration on the principal question of collusion that Mueller was investigating and an incomplete verdict on the related question of obstruction, though Barr added his own conclusion that also absolved the president on the latter issue.
Barr’s summary enabled the president to claim victory, though, in typical Trumpian fashion, he exaggerated its extent by conflating Barr’s conclusion of no obstruction with Mueller’s conclusion of no collusion. In fact, the attorney general’s verdict left a lot for Trump’s critics to explore in the coming months.
They include the questions of whether Mueller punted the obstruction issue because of the lack of convincing evidence, his inability to question Trump directly to determine his motives, the underlying belief a president can’t be indicted or Barr’s belief, expressed before entering office, that a president can’t commit obstruction in carrying out his constitutional duties.
The resulting ambiguities are unlikely to quiet those Democratic voices demanding impeachment.
Still, even if the resulting congressional inquiries add to what is already in the public record about Trump’s obstructive efforts, they are not going to challenge the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 election in the way a Mueller conclusion of collusion would have done. And that was always the principal threat to the president.
This confirms the wisdom of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement several weeks ago that basically ruled out any serious Democratic effort to try to remove Trump from office by impeaching him in the unlikely hope a Republican Senate would convict. That would always have been a long shot, even with a Mueller finding of collusion.
The House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees are likely to continue in the coming months with their valid inquiries into the underlying issues stemming from Mueller’s probe and the questions stemming from Trump’s continuing efforts to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The many unanswered questions include the concealed Trump efforts during the campaign to win Russian approval for a massive hotel complex in Moscow.
U.S. attorneys in New York and several other jurisdictions will continue to look into questions surround the Trump inaugural committee, the Trump Foundation and the Trump organization itself.
But far more useful and politically significant will be the efforts by House Democratic panels to look into the Trump administration decisions that contravene proper procedures and, even in some case, the law. These include its utter mishandling of the refugee situation at the Southern border, the issuance of deregulatory directives that undercut the nation’s environmental and civil rights enforcement, and the way Trump has strained this country’s international alliances in his trade and strategic policies.
Pelosi’s Democratic majority needs to pursue the legislative agenda that was its principal focus in last fall’s congressional election campaign, such as fixing the Affordable Care Act, lowering drug prices, strengthening background check provisions on firearms purchases and repairing the nation’s infrastructure.
Even if the Republican Senate resists, it’s important for the House Democrats to demonstrate their priorities are in synch with those of their voters, who were always far more interested in these issues than in the Russia probe.
Similarly, the less that Democratic presidential hopefuls talk about the Mueller probe’s lingering issues, the better, even though Trump still bears some responsibility for the substantial wrongdoing it revealed by some of his key campaign lieutenants.
That’s because the way the two-year probe answered its principal charge means that further discussion will likely benefit Trump, more than those who remain fixated on its lingering legal questions, no matter how legitimate.
Fortunately for the Democrats, Trump’s policies and the way he has conducted the presidency have always seemed a likelier path to the White House.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.