Democratic House leaders and presidential candidates are taking different approaches.
President Trump summarized the special counsel report on the day of its release with four words in all caps — “NO COLLUSION. NO OBSTRUCTION.”
The first two were not addressed by the report. The second two falsely described Robert S. Mueller III’s findings.
But the pithy declaration, set in a Game of Thrones “Game Over” meme and repeated frequently by Trump’s surrogates on television, helped to establish a reading of the report’s implications that Trump would embrace in the days to come. In response, Democratic leaders offered no memes or catchphrases of their own. They called instead for less redaction of the document and more congressional hearings.
It was an appropriate coda for an investigation that has always pitted at its core a nuanced examination of fact and law — 448 pages, footnotes included — against the blunt force of Trump’s sloganeering.
For Democrats aiming to topple Trump in the 2020 election, the contrast was a stark reminder of the challenges ahead in a country where political information travels largely through polarized channels that can be shaped by a president fluent in angry denunciations of his enemies, tribal appeals to his base and frequent misdirection.
On its face, the Mueller report revealed damning details of Trump’s attempts to interfere in a federal investigation and his campaign’s multiple contacts with Russian officials, some of whom sought to help him in the 2016 election. But rather than “the end of my presidency” — an outcome Trump had predicted upon Mueller’s appointment — the political impact of the report’s release is uncertain, and it is unlikely to trigger his impeachment.
Deceptive, embarrassing and potentially criminal behavior that Trump once decried as “fake news” has now been verified in great detail, on the basis of witness statements taken under oath and newly revealed criminal investigations. At the same time, a divided opposition party that once spoke of Mueller as a potential savior now speaks of him as merely one part of a larger process to publicize Trump’s misbehavior before the 2020 campaign.
Of the 18 Democratic candidates running for president, none came out to call for impeachment proceedings against Trump in the first 24 hours after the report’s release. Only two, former housing secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called for forcing Trump out of office since then.
Most strategists planning for the general election campaign against Trump expect to focus far less on Trump’s behavior and personal qualities than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 election.
“If in a year I am talking about the Mueller report, I am losing,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who advises the presidential campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). “Because the election is going to be about the economy.”
By leaving behind the daily spectacle of Trump’s provocations, they see a chance to return to the 2018 playbook to focus on issues that more directly affect voters. They won that year’s midterm elections with economic arguments and a focused message about Republican efforts to reduce access to affordable health care.