The Slatest

Is the Mueller Report Damning Enough to Be the Centerpiece of a 2020 Campaign?

Bernie Sanders fields a question from the audience during a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on April 15, 2019.
Democratic voters care about the Russia investigation, but they care about other issues more. Pictured: Bernie Sanders fielding a question from the audience during a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Monday. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Robert Mueller’s report is far more damning than President Donald Trump and his allies would have the American public believe. The special counsel documented, in detail, multiple attempts by Trump to derail the federal investigation into his campaign and presidency. The report suggests Mueller declined to indict the president for obstruction of justice not because he lacked the evidence, but the authority to do so. Still, the former FBI director managed to draw Congress the road map it needs to impeach Trump, making the most pressing question whether House Democrats will follow it.

That raises related questions for the deep field of Democrats running for president: What should they do with the new information? Is the report damning enough to make it the centerpiece of a campaign? Or are they better off focusing on things like health care, an issue their party rode to victory in the midterms?

The candidates’ early responses suggest the major players will take a measured approach, much like they did after Attorney General William Barr released his misleading summary late last month. Then, they demanded the release of the full report. Now, the likes of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are demanding that lawmakers see the unredacted version and hear directly from Mueller so Democrats can continue their congressional investigations.

Such restraint from the 2020 field is both natural and smart.

As I’ve noted before, you can’t build a presidential campaign on the promise of impeaching the president—both 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. Furthermore, each and every Democratic hopeful is running—at least implicitly—on the idea that Trump should be removed from office, albeit at the end of his first term rather than in the middle of it. Unlike their friends in the House, the White House hopefuls can sidestep the yes-no question of impeachment simply by saying that the Mueller report makes the need to defeat Trump at the ballot box that much clearer.

If House Democrats sit on their hands, it’s possible that a presidential candidate or two may come out publicly in favor of impeachment as a way to grab some attention. Such a move could be an act of catharsis for some progressives, given how the Steny Hoyers of their party are acting at the moment. (“Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment,” said Hoyer, a man elected to a two-year term.) But any buzz would likely be fleeting, since the Democratic rank-and-file have yet to show all that much interest in hearing from the presidential candidates about the investigation, even as the talking heads have kept it front and center for the past year.

It’s not that Democratic voters don’t care about Trump’s wrongdoing. It’s just that they care more about other issues. According to Gallup, for instance, 66 percent of Democrats said the Russia investigation was either extremely or very important to their midterm votes, good for just ninth on a list of 12 issues—21 percentage points behind health care, and 9 and 8 percentage points behind climate change and immigration, respectively. Meanwhile, saying Trump’s unfit for office isn’t exactly a game changer in a Democratic primary where even the guy who talks glowingly about his Republican friends and the bipartisan days of yore wants voters to imagine him “beat[ing] the hell out of” Trump. There’s plenty of disagreement within the Democratic Party—on everything from how best to expand health care coverage to how not to invade a woman’s personal space—but there’s not much when it comes to the man currently in the Oval Office: They want him out.

Broadly speaking, Mueller’s findings are good news for the eventual Democratic nominee if for no other reason than they are bad news for Donald Trump. But it’s unclear how much the report itself will move the needle in a general election, which is still more than a year away. The report was only released 10 hours ago, and a lot can still change. But Barr’s summary, as misleading as it was, failed to significantly shift public opinion about the investigation, nor did it have a major impact on Trump’s lackluster approval rating, which has been remarkably steady during his time in office—even as much of what is documented in Mueller’s report came to light in drips and drabs before today. Again, that doesn’t mean voters don’t care about the report—simply that most of those feelings are already baked into the campaign cake. The good news for Democrats, then, is that Mueller has effectively made the obstruction case for them, freeing their eventual nominee to focus his or her attention elsewhere.