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First Thoughts On The Political Fallout Of The Mueller Report

“This Is Good For Trump — If Barr Is Representing Things Fairly,” my editor Micah suggested as the headline for this column when we were talking over whether I should write something on Attorney General William Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.1

“I mean, isn’t that kinda obvious?” I replied to him.

Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious, though, especially when it comes at the end of a 22-month-long investigation by Mueller, the former FBI director, into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election. According to a letter prepared by Barr, Mueller’s report said that it “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” That’s pretty obviously good news for Trump — close enough to a finding of “NO COLLUSION” that Trump will use it both as a shield against any further efforts to investigate corruption on his part, as well as a weapon in his effort to prove that the media and Democrats are out to get him.

“If Barr Is Representing Things Fairly” is an equally obvious caveat. Barr is a Trump appointee (although he was confirmed by Congress, largely along party lines). Relatively little of Mueller’s report was quoted directly in Barr’s letter, and at least one sentence that was quoted is notably ambivalent about the president’s conduct. “While the report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the quoted section of Mueller’s report says, apparently referring to whether Trump committed obstruction of justice.

If that’s what Mueller’s report concludes — clean bill of health for Trump on collusion, ambivalent on obstruction — that’s still a pretty good outcome for the president, especially since (for a variety of reasons) the bar was high for what was likely to make a big dent in public opinion. If, however, Barr has shaded his summary to be friendly to Trump — maybe Mueller was more ambivalent about collusion, too, than Barr’s letter implies — it might be more of a wash. So there’s a margin of error in predicting the political fallout from the report.

What we can say, however, is that a number of really bad outcomes have been removed from the table for Trump:

  • There’s no previously unknown smoking gun linking Trump to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign.
  • Trump wasn’t indicted, and none of his family members were indicted.
  • Trump didn’t pardon anyone before the investigation concluded.
  • Trump didn’t fire Mueller.

The latter two outcomes are easy to overlook. Whether or not Trump himself committed any crimes or directly coordinated with Russia, there was always the possibility that — out of spite, paranoia, confusion, or the fear that Mueller would look into potential illegal activities other than Russia — Trump would fire him, as he reportedly came close to doing in late 2017. There was also the chance that Trump would pardon a subject of the investigation while the investigation was underway. There are several different ways that such moves could have ended badly for Trump, and with the Mueller investigation over, he’s dodged all of them for now.2

Removing these extremely negative outcomes is a pretty big win for Trump. It isn’t quite the same as predicting that he’ll gain immediate political upside from the conclusion of the investigation; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if his approval rating goes up by a couple of percentage points, for instance, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t. The impact of Russia-related matters on Trump’s polling hasn’t always been clear; his approval ratings dropped after he fired FBI Director James Comey (in an arguably Russia-related move) in May 2017, and he experienced a slump in late August and early September 2018 after former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to fraud charges and campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of fraud. But many other seeming bombshells — the several rounds of indictments that Mueller issued, for instance — came and went without any seeming effect on Trump’s polling. Somewhat contrary to programming decisions on cable news, the Russia investigation wasn’t a huge point of emphasis for Democrats in the 2018 midterm campaign, nor has it been during the presidential campaign so far.

Moreover, views of the Mueller investigation had become more and more polarized along partisan lines. And judging by Barr’s letter, there will probably be enough ambivalence in the report for people who didn’t like Trump in the first place to find more reasons not to like him.

But my guess is that where this will help Trump the most is not with traditional swing voters but with Trump-skeptical Republicans. Even Republicans who don’t love Trump tend to be critical of the news media, and they’d already thought that the media was devoting too much attention to Russia-related matters. If the investigation now looks to them like a wild goose chase — or a “WITCH HUNT,” to use Trump’s preferred term — it will create greater solidarity between them and the rest of the Republican Party. While this isn’t a huge group of voters, every little bit helps in an election that could shape up as another 50-50 affair.

From ABC News:

Attorney General William Barr delivered Mueller report’s main conclusions to Congress


  1. We wound up using a similar headline for Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux’s analysis of Barr’s letter.

  2. Although Trump could pardon someone for unrelated reasons later on.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.