The Slatest

2020 Democrats’ Strategy of Restraint on the Mueller Probe Was Wise

Kamala Harris holds a microphone in front of an American flag.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during a town hall meeting at Canyon Springs High School on March 1 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Robert Mueller’s report—or more specifically, Attorney General William Barr’s own reading of it—is undeniably good news for Donald Trump and his hopes of re-election. Barr’s four-page summary raises more questions than it answers, but the special counsel’s apparent failure to find enough evidence that Trump coordinated with the Russian government greatly reduces the chances that House Democrats move to impeach the president, while simultaneously handing him a powerful political weapon. Democrats are now on the defensive over an issue that had played to their advantage during Trump’s first two years in office.

There’s at least one group of Democrats, though, whose lives just got easier: those running for president, most of whom have spent the early days of their 2020 campaigns trying to steer the conversation away from #collusion and impeachment and toward issues like health care, immigration, and the economy. Based on the little we do know about Mueller’s findings, that strategy was a smart one. And it will prove far easier to execute moving forward, assuming there’s no new bombshell that changes Nancy Pelosi’s mind about trying to remove Trump from office. Better still for Democratic hopefuls, the anti-Trump message is once again simple: The best and likely only way to remove Trump from power now is to beat him at the ballot box in November 2020. The fundraising emails practically write themselves.

The strategy of restraint was a natural one. You can’t build a presidential campaign on the promise of impeaching the president, because impeachment is the responsibility of the House and because the need to impeach would become moot the very moment the next president is sworn in. Still, the incentives to hype what the investigation would uncover were nonetheless real in a crowded field where it has been difficult for many candidates to get noticed and with a liberal megadonor banging the impeachment drum on the sidelines. It’s remarkable that none of the major candidates gave in to that temptation even in their rhetoric, if not their strategy.

There’s long been a disconnect between how much the media cares about the Mueller report and how much everyday voters do. As the Washington Post’s David Weigel points out, candidates have often found themselves on cable news hoping to talk about policy only to find themselves being asked about Trump and Russia. Meanwhile, as the New York Times and others noticed over the weekend, talk of the report was largely absent at campaign events in New Hampshire and South Carolina. With Mueller’s work complete, Democrats should soon be free to press their advantage on issues like health care and the economy, which were key to the midterm pitch that won them control of the House. And when the Mueller probe does come up as it inevitably will, the 2020 hopefuls can simply demand that the entire report be made public and leave it at that.

A truly damning Mueller report would have made it easier for a Democrat to defeat Trump in 2020, but he’s hardly invincible even now. Mueller is done but the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is not. Trump’s approval rating remains mired in the low-40s. He has failed to deliver on his chief 2016 campaign promise of building his beloved wall. His signature legislative achievement—the 2017 tax cut bill—has failed to live up to its billing. Likewise, his trade war has backfired. He continues to say and do racist and misogynistic things. And he no longer has an iron grip on his own party. The Democratic nominee won’t have to go back to the drawing board to find ways to attack him. For that, at least, the 2020 field of challengers can be thankful.