Mueller report fades from political conversation

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE’s Russia report has largely faded from the airwaves less than a month after the former special counsel’s high-profile congressional testimony, a possible warning sign to Democrats that most voters have lost interest in the probe.

Even President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE has made fewer mentions recently of the investigation that spanned 22 months of his presidency.

During a campaign-style rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, the president did not launch into his once-regular diatribes decrying the Mueller probe as a partisan “witch hunt.” Instead, Trump focused his ire on two Muslim congresswomen — Democratic Reps. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Al Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles MORE (Minn.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibSanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump House moves ahead on long-stalled resolution supporting two states for Israelis and Palestinians MORE (Mich.) — and their thwarted attempt to visit Israel.

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Trump is not the only one shifting focus away from the probe, which until recently dominated cable news.

In late July, discussion of Mueller’s investigation and possible impeachment were largely absent as the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates debated each other on issues like health care and who is best positioned to beat Trump in the general election.

Fading public interest in the Mueller probe would be an unwelcome development for House Democrats, particularly as the House Judiciary Committee presses forward with its investigation into possible obstruction and potential abuses of power by the president.

And while Mueller’s day of testimony on Capitol Hill fell flat in terms of providing a marketable moment for Democrats, in part because it didn’t yield any new information outside the report, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerJudiciary panel releases report defining impeachable offenses READ: White House letter refusing to participate in impeachment hearings White House tells Democrats it won't cooperate in impeachment hearings MORE (D-N.Y.) has vowed to move forward with his committee’s probe by holding public hearings with other key witnesses on the nearly dozen episodes of possible obstruction by Trump as examined in the 448-page Mueller report.

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle says there are two primary factors contributing to public disinterest: The lack of a fiery moment from Mueller’s testimony and voters no longer asking Democratic candidates on the campaign trail about the Russia probe.

“When you put those together, this is a broader retreat from conversations about impeachment, even while Nadler and the House are steadily conducting these hearings in the background,” said Smikle, former executive director of the New York Democratic Party.

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Some Democratic strategists, however, argue this lull is temporary.

“While it may seem quiet in the nation's capital during August recess, the criminal wrongdoing revealed in the Mueller report is a hot topic at town halls across the country,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and vocal advocate of impeachment.

Petkanas pointed to three recent town hall meetings in which three freshman Democrats — Reps. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinIran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report Democrats debate scope of impeachment charges Democrats hit gas on impeachment MORE (Mich.), Andy Kim (N.J.) and Antonio DelgadoAntonio Ramon DelgadoPowerful House panel to hold 'Medicare for All' hearing next week Overnight Health Care: Democratic group to only endorse AG candidates who back abortion rights | Protect Our Care launches seven-figure ad buy to boost vulnerable Dems | California sues Juul Group launches seven-figure ad buy boosting vulnerable Democrats on drug prices MORE (N.Y.) — were asked about impeachment by constituents. All three flipped their congressional seats from red to blue during the 2018 midterm elections. 

“That's why virtually every day another member of Congress comes out in support of launching an impeachment inquiry,” Petkanas said.

Republican strategists say they also see evidence the president and Democrats are moving away from the Russia probe, arguing that neither party wants to run on the Mueller probe next year.

“Both sides at this juncture think that they don't gain anything electorally from talking about Russia. The Democrats would prefer to put all of their energy into the idea of cultural issues that Trump may be a white supremacist, that's the reason why they're moving off of it,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

“Trump's moving off of it because he realizes, too, he gains nothing by talking about it. Because the second that Bill Barr and Mueller and everyone basically said he wasn't an agent of Russia, then pretty much the whole storyline ended,” O’Connell added.

The White House has prevented House Democrats from harnessing momentum by blocking former and current White House officials from testifying about the comments they provided in the Mueller probe, a move Democrats acknowledge has been both effective and frustrating.

“The refusal of the White House to obey subpoenas has contributed to this impasse that a lot of observers believe puts us no closer to impeachment than we were over a year ago, and therefore some of the conversation around it has fallen,” Smikle told The Hill.

“It appears the White House is winning because even though refusing to obey subpoenas may be an impeachable offense … little new information is being gleaned since the Mueller hearing came to a close,” he added.

The president’s lawyers have argued that under the standard of immunity, confidential protections offered to the executive branch apply to current and former aides, effectively preventing them from disclosing what took place during their time in the administration.

While both Republican and Democratic administrations have invoked the immunity concept, legal experts say there is virtually no case law on the subject, with some predicting the White House is likely to lose if it's challenged in court.

Nadler is seeking to challenge the White House claims in court, filing a civil lawsuit earlier this month that seeks to enforce a subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Democrats believe if they win the McGahn case, other former and current White House aides would also be compelled to appear on Capitol Hill, creating a possible domino effect that they hope will also usher in a new wave of energy for impeachment.

Some strategists say that while the impeachment window may be closing, getting a key witness like McGahn to testify could breathe new life into Democrats' investigations, particularly since the former White House counsel was involved in Trump’s efforts to remove the special counsel amid news Mueller was investigating possible obstruction.

“I imagine winning the lawsuit and bringing McGahn to testify can create some cracks in the armor of the administration and might fuel more dialogue around impeachment,” Smikle said, while cautioning that such a hearing likely won’t get “as much attention as it needs to, given the proximity to the first primary.”

Petkanas is more confident that impeachment fervor will pick up after the August recess ends.

“This will only heat up when members return to Washington after Labor Day and get an update on the progress of the Judiciary Committee's court cases to compel fact witness testimony,” he told The Hill.

In the meantime, the Mueller report has not fully escaped the president’s broadsides.

Trump went after The New York Times on Sunday, accusing the paper of seeking to spread the “phony Russian collusion narrative” after a leaked recording reportedly quoted Executive Editor Dean Baquet describing how his outlet was “a little tiny bit flat-footed” after the sudden retreat in Mueller intrigue.

"The Failing New York Times, in one of the most devastating portrayals of bad journalism in history, got caught by a leaker that they are shifting from their Phony Russian Collusion Narrative (the Mueller Report & his testimony were a total disaster), to a Racism Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted in what appeared to be a reference to the leaked audio from a staff meeting at the newspaper.

Baquet also reportedly said there was a loss of interest from readers once they realized Mueller was not recommending charges against the president.

“Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.' And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically,” Baquet said, according to Slate’s transcript of the meeting held last week. “And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago.”

While Mueller said his investigation did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia, he did not make a determination as to whether the president obstructed justice. Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump: Giuliani to deliver report on Ukraine trip to Congress, Barr 'Project Guardian' is the effective gun law change we need Supreme Court denies Trump request to immediately resume federal executions MORE and other Justice Department officials ultimately decided that the evidence laid out in the Mueller report did not reach the threshold to charge Trump with obstruction.

Democrats maintain it was not Barr’s choice to make and that the decision to do so falls on the House.

But while a majority of House Democrats have voiced support to open impeachment proceedings against the president, including most recently the No. 4 Democrat in the House, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Democrats open door to repealing ObamaCare tax in spending talks Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing MORE (D-Calif.) has opposed those efforts. Instead, she has directed Democrats to focus on their investigations into Trump as a way of building up their evidence against him.

Nadler, who has privately pushed Pelosi to open an impeachment inquiry, has projected confidence that Democrats will shift public sentiment toward favoring impeachment as a result of his investigation, despite polls indicating a majority of voters do not favor such a move.

"We will hold these hearings. We will get the support of the American people or we won't. I suspect we will," Nadler said on MSNBC earlier this month.

With or without public support, Smikle says, Democrats may feel they don’t have a choice if 2020 doesn’t play out in their favor.

“I think there's this nagging question that hangs over their heads: What happens if Donald Trump wins the election and we did not impeach?” Smikle said.