Both sides were wrong about Mueller report, and none of it will likely matter for 2020

Both sides were wrong about Mueller report, and none of it will likely matter for 2020
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Democrats thought special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerGraham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' House progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller MORE's investigation would doom Donald Trump. And Republicans, after Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan House Intelligence enjoys breakthrough with Justice Department Schiff blasts Trump's 'un-American' order to intel agencies to cooperate with Barr probe MORE gave President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE a clean bill of legal health last month, contended that he was in the clear.

Both were wrong.


As a redacted version of the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was released, both sides reaffirmed their views: To many Democrats, Trump's coziness with the Russians and his efforts to sabotage any investigation remain deeply suspicious — six of the president's associates have been indicted — as does Barr's rationale for keeping some of the report secret. Many Republicans echo Trump that it all was a witch hunt, that there was no collusion with the Russians, and it's time to investigate the case that it all was a set-up job by American intelligence agencies.

The political impact, however, may be minimal. It is likely to reverberate more on ideologically driven cable television shows and social media sites than in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Throughout two years of intense focus, public attitudes toward Trump have only hardened. His base remains solid — as does the opposition. "Without even looking at the report, I thought it would have no impact on Trump's job approval," said Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster. "People are locked in." 

Still, the report didn't produce anywhere near the victory lap that Trump claimed. "The political impact on voters may be marginal, but Trump is in worse shape today than the day Barr released his letter, because 'complete exoneration' has been exposed as an unsustainable fiction," declared Geoff Garin, a top Democratic pollster.

Moreover, embarrassing elements of the redacted material could emerge, and other legal actions against the president might be taken by the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York -- or by that state's attorney general -- on a range of issues.

Even though the Russian scandal won't be a focal point of Democratic presidential candidates, House Democrats won't let go. There will be a full-fledged effort to obtain the entire Mueller report, to investigate any attendant national security issues along with separate probes into the president's tax returns and business relations with Deutsche Bank.

Republicans warn that a plethora of investigations will come across as partisan excess. Some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks MORE (D-Calif.), privately worry about this, too.

What came out in Mueller's 448-page report didn't contain any hidden "smoking gun" or really new, incriminating stuff against the president. 

Neither, however, was it nearly as benign as the White House and the attorney general had claimed. Barr's partisan role was reinforced when he reportedly gave contents of the report to the White House days before Congress saw it, and then held a press conference — before the release — that had been announced by Trump. He sounded almost sycophantic about the president.


On the question of colluding with the Russians to affect the presidential election, the investigation found that although there were numerous contacts between Trump operatives and Russians, there was "not sufficient" evidence to bring criminal charges.

Mueller's decision to not reach a conclusion on whether the president engaged in obstruction was much tougher than Barr suggested March 24, (The attorney general cleared Trump of any obstruction, following a memorandum he wrote last year raising question about whether a president can commit obstruction.)

Mueller, however, after laying out numerous examples of Trump's attempt to sabotage the investigation into Russian interference, said he would have cleared the president if possible but that the facts made doing so impossible. The report also alluded to a longstanding Justice Department ruling that a sitting president cannot be indicted and suggested, as a matter of "fairness," that they were limited as "no charges could be brought."

House Democrats will take strong issue with Barr. But the only real recourse to proceed in these matters is to initiate an impeachment proceeding. With no Republican support, and skepticism from Speaker Pelosi, that is a reach unless something new emerges.

For an issue of such grave importance — the Russians interfered in and possibly affected the outcome of the U.S. presidential election — it has been a minor issue for political candidates, including the more than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls. They are harshly critical of Trump, his character — Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtiegieg backs NFL players' right to protest during anthem: I 'put my life on the line to defend' that 2020 Democrats join striking McDonald's workers Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden MORE refers to the "porn star presidency," alluding to Trump's  sexual affair and pay-off to an exotic dancer — and lack of ethics, as well as his policies including his obsequiousness toward Russian dictator Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump's rejection of the Arms Trade Treaty Is based on reality Ex-Trump campaign adviser on Tillerson remarks: Trump will 'pick a fight with anybody' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump MORE. But, in the main, their focus is on economy and wages, education and, particularly, health care. While they all will address the Mueller findings and criticize Trump's actions, the established campaign pattern is unlikely to change.

That also was true of the 43 Democrats who won Republican seats last November to give the party control of the House. The biggest issue, in most of these races, was health care and Republican efforts to dismantle ObamaCare.

This week a couple Democratic party strategists said their concern was not the Mueller report but polls that showed Republicans narrowing their deficit on health care. They attribute this to concerns over left-wing proposals by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats join striking McDonald's workers Billionaire's M gift to Morehouse grads points way to student debt solution Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and others to kill ObamaCare and replace it with a government-run program.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.