The Mueller report, released in full on Thursday, has complicated the politics of the broader Trump-Russia story for both Democrats and Republicans.
Congressional Democrats are facing an obvious question: What should they do now? Before the report’s release, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed the idea of impeaching President Trump. But the 400-plus page report included lots of evidence that Trump’s actions to stifle the investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election may have constituted obstruction of justice. The report also implied that Mueller and his team felt that they could not file obstruction charges against Trump because of Justice Department guidelines that prevent bringing criminal charges against a sitting president. Some analysts have cast the Mueller report as essentially an “impeachment referral,” giving House Democrats lots of information about possible wrongdoing by the president and implying that Congress, not the Justice Department, has the authority to determine what to do about it. So Democrats have to decide whether they want to impeach Trump, definitely not impeach Trump or take some kind of middle road.
For Republicans and Trump, there is a question too. Some in the party, relying on Attorney General William Barr’s interpretation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Barr sent to Congress last month, were eager to start an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, essentially investigating the investigators. But the report itself was much more damning than Barr’s letter describing it had indicated. Are Republicans, however angry they are about the Trump-Russia investigation, better off trying to move away from this issue, rather than relitigating it?
Obviously, these two intra-party questions are connected — Republicans may be more motivated to scrutinize the Russia investigation if Democrats are using it to push to impeach Trump. It may therefore take some time for the parties to settle on their courses. But for now, let’s see how they’re responding by looking at the comments that key officials in the main wings of each party have made in the wake of the Mueller report’s release.
The most aggressive response to the full Mueller report has, naturally, come from the most liberal wings of the Democratic Party. Last month, I sketched out six chief Democratic blocs (from most liberal to most moderate): the Super Progressives, the Very Progressives, the Progressive New Guard, the Progressive Old Guard, the Moderates and Conservative Democrats. Many of the party’s Super Progressives, including U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are already talking about impeachment, as is a key voice in the party’s Very Progressive bloc, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
It’s likely that all of those members favor Trump’s impeachment by the House and removal from office. But Ocasio-Cortez, in the wake of the Mueller report, specifically said that she would support Tlaib’s resolution calling for the House Judiciary Committee to start a formal impeachment investigation in the House. Similarly, Warren said that the House “should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.”
The most rightward position so far has come from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whose political approach generally aligns with two of the party’s wings, the Moderates and the Progressive Old Guard. In the hours after the Mueller report’s release, he suggested that Democrats should basically rule out impeachment. Later, Hoyer slightly backtracked on that stance, saying that “all options ought to remain on the table.” But I expect Democrats from the party’s Moderate and Conservative blocs over the next few weeks to head in the direction of Hoyer’s initial comments — namely, to argue that Democrats should move on from the Trump-Russia controversy.
Somewhere in the middle are the party’s Progressive New Guard and Progressive Old Guard. These blocs, which include most of the party’s presidential contenders and key congressional leaders like Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, have essentially settled on two fairly non-controversial positions: to push the Justice Department to allow all members of Congress to see the unredacted version of the Mueller report and for Mueller to testify on Capitol Hill. Those are pretty risk-free moves. That probably buys these groups another month before they have to weigh in on the impeachment question.
But at some point, key Democrats, particularly Pelosi and the presidential candidates, will have to answer a bunch of impeachment-related questions. Should the House start a formal impeachment investigation? Should the party consider some other kind of measure, such as a censure, to signal its disapproval of the Trump actions that are described in the Mueller report — but not take any steps toward impeachment? Should Democrats instead seek to sanction a lower-level official in the administration like Barr, who they say misled the country in his initial description of Mueller’s findings? Or should Democrats fully move on from Trump-Russia, even as they investigate the president on other issues?
I’ve seen several different positions and views from Republicans in the wake of the Mueller report. To map out these positions, we’ll use the five main GOP blocs I wrote about last month (from most aligned with Trump to least): The Trumpists, the Pro-Trumpers, Trump-Skeptical Conservatives, Trump-Skeptical Moderates and Anti-Trumpers.
Anti-Trump Republicans, a tiny portion of the party, are arguing that the Mueller report is another reason that the GOP needs to move on from Trump and choose a different nominee in 2020. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key voice in the Trump-Skeptical Moderate bloc of the party, hasn’t gone that far, but she has said that she wants Mueller to testify before Congress, an appearance that is unlikely to be particularly helpful to Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, another Trump-skeptical moderate, blasted the president after the report’s release, saying that he was “sickened” by the behavior of Trump and others as described by Mueller’s team.
But I assume that the positions espoused by those two wings of the GOP will have little impact on the rest of the party — those blocs aren’t very influential. What will be interesting to watch, however, is the debate between the Trumpists and the pro-Trump Republicans. As their names suggest, both groups are supportive of Trump as a default; a key difference between them is often how far they’re willing to go to back the president — Trumpists have historically been willing to go further. And, indeed, some of the Republicans who are most closely aligned with the president, such as U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, still want to investigate the Russia investigation. I expect key voices on Fox News will push that idea as well.
In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a key voice in the party’s Pro-Trump bloc, has said little about the Mueller report since its release. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that it was time to “move on” from the Russia issue. I suspect that pro-Trump Republicans who are not Trumpists will push for the party to focus on approving conservative judges and GOP policy goals like reducing regulations and cutting taxes and not to get mired in trying to get payback over the Russia investigation.
Ultimately, how the GOP handles the fallout from the Mueller probe will probably come down to three people. If Republicans want to investigate the investigators, the Justice Department and the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee are the most logical places for an extended inquiry into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. And that means Barr and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham are, in some ways, the deciders here. That said, the main person to watch is Trump, of course. If he is publicly and privately suggesting that the Russia investigation was deeply unfair to him, whipping up the party’s activists and demanding that those who started the Russia probe be punished, Barr and Graham will feel a lot of pressure to do Trump’s bidding, even if McConnell and other establishment Republicans think it would be better politically for the party to move on.
In short, the Mueller investigation is over. But the political and electoral fallout from the Mueller report probably isn’t — and maybe won’t be until November 2020.
From ABC News: