Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The Mueller report has cast a long shadow over much of President Trump’s time in office. The Department of Justice released a 448-page report, split into two volumes – Russian interference during the 2016 campaign; and the results of the Special Counsel’s investigation into allegations of obstruction of justice by Trump. Washington was absorbed almost entirely by the report in the days after it was released, but now that the dust has settled, we are able to take a longer view and consider its lasting implications.
First, there is a chance that the Mueller investigation gets lost in the frenetic news cycle that surrounds Washington politics. A Google Trends search of “Robert Mueller” in the United States shows how interest peaked on March 24th, the day Attorney General William Barr made public a short summary of the Special Counsel’s key findings. The headline on that day was that there was no evidence that President Trump or any of his aides coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference.
Interest since then has risen and fallen, but intriguingly has tracked closely to a Google Trends analysis for “impeachment”. Whilst this is an unscientific comparison, it helps illustrate how the public links Mueller and the prospects for the President’s impeachment.
The Democratic impact: To impeach or not to impeach?
With a constantly expanding field of Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, the publication of the Mueller report provides an important litmus test for leadership candidates. We have already seen divergence amongst the frontrunners who are seeking to answer the question: To impeach, or not to impeach? The ongoing problem for Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat on the Hill, is that her caucus remains torn in both the short and long term between arguments for and against impeachment. “Trump is goading us to impeach him”, Speaker Pelosi has said, arguing that any attempt to do so would solidify the President’s base going into the 2020 campaign. She is right on both counts.
A long list of Democrats making the case for initiating impeachment proceedings argue that past acts by the President are impeachable, as outlined in the Mueller report. Crucially, note the Special Counsel left the door open for Congress to act on obstruction charges, writing that it “can validly regulate the President’s exercise of official duties to prohibit actions motivated by a corrupt intent to obstruct justice.” From the 2020 field, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for the impeachment process to begin immediately and Joe Biden has said that Congress has “no alternative” but to pursue impeachment if Trump continues to block its efforts to follow up on the Special Counsel’s investigation. Other Democrats of this view include Senator Kamala Harris and Rep Seth Moulton.
Of the above, Harris has explicitly linked the fallout from the Mueller report with her campaign. Her 2020 website calls for supporters to make a donation if they agree Attorney General Bill Barr should resign. Looking ahead, we should expect more Democratic candidates in this bracket to make impeachment central to their campaign messaging and fundraising strategies.
More cautious Democrats in the 2020 field are of the opinion that any attempt to impeach will inevitably fail in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a majority, and so attempts to do so in the House would prove the President’s argument that Democrats are being obstructionists. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who adorns the cover of this months’ Time magazine, remains on the fence, having argued: “I think he’s made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment” but plans to “leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.” Bernie Sanders wants to talk about policy issues like healthcare and climate change, not “Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller”.
The GOP impact: Clarity in 2020
“No collusion! No obstruction!” had been Trump’s mantra throughout the Special Counsel’s investigation, and with the publication of the report he feels even more emboldened to absolve himself of any wrongdoing. That appeared somewhat at odds with the Special Counsel’s conclusions, given Mueller had been following the longstanding Department of Justice view that says a sitting president cannot be indicted. And so Mueller wrote that the report does not exonerate the President and he cannot be charged while president. In short, he was let off by the Special Counsel on a technicality.
Trump appears unmoved by the prospects of impeachment. Asked about whether he was worried about it during a White House Easter event, he replied: “Not even a little bit.” Despite that casual attitude, the President has sent 142 tweets containing “Mueller” since December 2017 and 20 tweets containing the word “impeach” since becoming president. Whilst Harris is seeking to fundraise on the basis of calls for impeachment, the 2020 Trump campaign sent out a series of fundraising emails making calls to investigate Democrats. Campaign coffers are filling up on the back of the Special Counsel’s report.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the Mueller report has not hurt the President in the polls, which might begin to explain his confidence. Approval of Trump’s job performance remains relatively high. After jumping from 39 per cent in early March to 45 per cent in the first half of April, his approval rating was 46 per cent in Gallup’s latest poll (April 17th-30th). That 46 per cent approval rating is narrowly worse than Obama’s (49 per cent) but far behind George W. Bush’s (69 per cent) at the same point in their first terms.
Clarity of messaging matters. The President’s simple statement – “No collusion! No obstruction!” – is equivalent to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Whereas the variety of Democratic views – impeach now / impeach later / don’t impeach let’s talk about healthcare instead – is equivalent to Change UK / The Independent Group / #RemainAlliance.
The Democratic leadership is struggling to maintain a common position on the fallout of the Mueller investigation, whilst the prospects for impeachment will become a critical issue for 2020 candidates. With a staggering 91 per cent approval rating amongst Republican voters and no imminent threat of 2020 primary challenge, the President’s messaging is expected to be carried by Republicans on the Hill and spun effectively by the White House. Democrats risk overplaying their hand and focussing on a Washington issue when the voting public wants to hear about kitchen table politics. For Trump, anything that reinforces a siege mentality will create fertile ground on the 2020 campaign.