By Seema Sirohi*
United States President Donald Trump has good reason to claim a political victory, even feel vindicated. He has largely been cleared of the charges of collusion by the special prosecutor’s investigation.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials but he did confirm Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.
The shock among the Democrats is palpable. They had hoped for a “brahmastra” from Mueller for the 2020 campaign, not the “dud” he delivered. The Mueller report is a clear setback for the Democrats and a net positive for the Republicans.
The Democrats, who until now were vigorously on the offensive, have been put on the defensive. It was a mistake to fuel the hype around the report, which mainstream media multiplied many times over, because now they must refocus national attention on other issues.
On the question whether Trump obstructed justice by interfering with the Russia investigation, Mueller failed to reach a definitive conclusion. He punted, again to the disappointment of Democrats.
Mueller’s approach is reflected in a key sentence quoted in the four-page summary released by Attorney General William Barr: “While this report does not conclude the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The door is left ajar for further inquiry, should the Democrats choose to open it and try to get political advantage. Unsurprisingly, Trump has already declared his “complete and total exoneration” on Twitter — a smart move aimed at his supporters and the larger American populace that lives far from Washington DC and worries more about hurricanes and floods than collusion and crippling details of a campaign two years ago.
But is Trump out of the woods? Politically speaking, he is almost there. It would be hard for the Democrats to get public attention for a Congressional investigation into charges of corruption against Trump — the House Judiciary Committee is pursing one already — over bread and butter issues. Some Democratic consultants have advised the party to get a grip and move on.
Pundits will keep debating why Mueller couldn’t find collusion despite myriad contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials that he himself documented. They will ask why 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, 2,800 subpoenas, around 500 search warrants, 50 requests for wiretaps and 500 witness interviews were not enough to establish collusion.
Mueller, a former FBI director, did charge 34 people, including top Trump advisors, and three companies during the two-year investigation.
For the people on the fence and conservative Democrats who voted for Trump, the debate would largely be academic — the headlines have essentially said “No collusion” much like Trump’s mantra and the cloud has lifted.
The failure of the system to take Trump down will, no doubt, enrage the Democratic base, which helped take control of the House of Representatives last November. Younger Democrats in the House have talked about impeachment but that line of pursuit seems impossible in the post-Mueller world. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an experienced and pragmatic politician, had already urged her troops to be cautious.
Pelosi said recently she is “not for impeachment” because Trump is “just not worth it.” But she could change her mind if there was bipartisan support for the move. That prospect — never a real possibility — is now well and truly dead.
The number of Republican critics of Trump has been dwindling steadily and those who remain will likely go into deep hibernation now. The bigger problem for Pelosi might be to keep the party together and calm the bitter intra-party disputes. The recent fracas over anti-Semitic remarks by Ilhan Omar, a Somali Muslim American Congresswoman, was indicative of the deep schisms on religion, race, gender and age running through the party. Trump promptly accused the Democrats of being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
The Democrats recognise that success in 2020 means that different wings must not pull in different directions. In addition, the new reality in which Mueller does not play a significant role requires a different set of strategies.
Thus far the Democrats’ foremost demand is for the release of the full report in the public interest and because Mueller hasn’t exonerated Trump on obstruction of justice charges. Underlying the demand is the hope they can find enough evidence to pursue that line of inquiry.
Then there are more than 15 other investigations by seven different prosecutors into Trump’s alleged financial wrongdoing, illegal use of funds collected for his inauguration, tax fraud and funneling business to the Trump Hotel among others.
Any of those could mean legal trouble for Trump down the road but those already behind him for 2020 will likely not change their mind. Those who oppose him already do regardless of the results of the investigations.
The Republicans will gel further together and anyone thinking of opposing Trump at this stage may be signing his or her own political death warrant.
But Mueller has ensured the real battle will be in the voting booths and over Trump’s policy record, which the Democrats may find to be a more productive pursuit.