FOR TWO years, Democrats have reminded voters about the federal investigators pursuing the president, while Republicans have considered that investigation to be a distraction from the vital work of making America great again. Now those roles are reversed. Robert Mueller’s investigation is over, and according to a summary prepared by William Barr, the attorney-general, Mr Mueller cleared Donald Trump of having conspired with Russia and did not recommend charging the president with obstruction of justice. Republicans want revenge: Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, wants Congress to investigate Barack Obama. The White House wants Democrats and the media to apologise. Most Democrats themselves would now rather talk about jobs and health care.
The conclusion of the investigation will not heal a divided country. Before the Mueller report landed, 44% of Americans thought the president should be impeached, according to a poll of 6,800 people by the Voter Study Group. That is almost identical to the proportion of Americans who approve of the job the president is doing in the Economist/YouGov poll. One rule of thumb in American politics in 2019 is that nobody changes their mind, and indeed post-Mueller the president’s approval rating has barely budged. The faction that wants Mr Trump canonised and the faction that wants him ejected from the White House immediately remain about equal in strength, and they still loathe each other.
Mr Trump, at least, has cause to cheer. For 22 months, Mr Mueller’s investigation hung over his administration. Cable news offered daily speculation about just how damaging it would be for the president. He can now point to some of the pronouncements from former officials like John Brennan, a former head of the CIA turned cable-news talking-head, who called Mr Trump “treasonous” and “in the pocket of Putin”, as yet more evidence of an incompetent establishment set against him. In December Mr Brennan had warned the president to get ready for the “forthcoming exposure of your malfeasance & corruption.” After Mr Barr’s summary landed he sounded a bit sheepish. “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was,” Mr Brennan told MSNBC.
In the short term, then, Mr Barr’s summary is a boon to Mr Trump. The longer-term effects may be more equivocal.
While the investigation was under way, two views of Mr Mueller’s work prevailed on opposite political poles. Mr Trump insisted it was a “witch hunt” that stemmed from Democrats’ inability to accept that he had defeated Hillary Clinton, and the Washington establishment’s disdain for his outsider status. His contacts with Russia were unusual, but he was an unorthodox politician, guilty of nothing more than trying to improve relations with a longtime adversary. That view was hard to square with the 37 indictments and seven guilty pleas or convictions produced by Mr Mueller’s digging, but those, Mr Trump insisted, had nothing to do with him.
Conversely, some of Mr Trump’s opponents embraced Mr Mueller with a quasi-religious zeal (witness the Mueller-face earrings and Mueller devotional candles available on Etsy, the e-commerce equivalent of a hippie grandmother’s attic). Beto O’Rourke, a presidential candidate, said that Mr Trump “beyond a shadow of a doubt sought to…collude with the Russian government…to undermine and influence our elections.” Many hoped that Mr Mueller’s digging would provide the requisite proof for such sentiments.
It did not. According to Mr Barr’s summary, Mr Mueller divided his report into two parts. The first concerns Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Mr Mueller’s probe “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”—with co-ordination defined as an “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” That is good news not just for Mr Trump, but for America. Had Mr Mueller turned up evidence that the president owed his election to a conspiracy with a hostile foreign power, it would have plunged the country into crisis.
Mr Mueller seems to have found no proof that Mr Trump or his staff worked with Russia in its hacking and disinformation efforts. He did, though, provide plenty of evidence that they welcomed Russia’s efforts. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, shared confidential polling data with a Ukrainian political consultant whom America’s intelligence agencies believe has links to Russian intelligence. Roger Stone, who worked on the initial stages of Mr Trump’s campaign, seemed to know that emails and documents stolen by Russian intelligence would be released at times favourable to Mr Trump. Donald Trump junior took a meeting with a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Mrs Clinton. And Mr Trump himself implored Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s server to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Mr Mueller may have found more such instances, which is one reason Democrats want the full report to be released.
Even if that fails, Congress will continue to investigate Mr Trump. Mr Mueller appeared to concern himself with whether members of the campaign broke criminal law. Congress has a broader remit: it can investigate behaviour it deems inimical to the national interest, even when such behaviour is not criminal. Congressional Democrats should not expect to find clear-cut evidence that Mr Mueller missed, but America has traditionally demanded more from its presidents than simply not being a criminal or an agent of a foreign power.
The second part of Mr Mueller’s report concerns obstruction of justice. According to Mr Barr, Mr Mueller examined “a number of actions by the President…as potentially raising obstruction-of-justice concerns.” These might include Mr Trump firing James Comey, his FBI director, or his efforts to discredit the investigation, or publicly attacking Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, after he pled guilty and implicated Mr Trump in a hush-money scheme that may have violated federal campaign-finance law. In the end, for reasons that were foreseen, he felt that he could not recommend that Mr Trump be prosecuted for obstructing justice (see article).
Republicans have treated Mr Barr’s conclusions as dispositive. Democrats, they say, misled America for two years. That is not quite right. Some in the fever swamps drew unsupported conclusions and made up elaborate theories that now appear silly. But Mr Trump’s fondness for Russia really is unusual, and he entered office under a counter-intelligence investigation for his links with Russia. That had to be completed, and had the roles been reversed, Republicans would certainly have made just as much noise about it as Democrats have.
The investigation’s completion leaves Mr Trump emboldened, and the presidency more powerful. Mr Barr’s reasoning—that the president cannot obstruct justice through the lawful exercise of his power—is now precedent. Future presidents will be even less hesitant about using the power of their office to help themselves out of legal trouble.
No sooner had Mr Barr issued his summary than a political battle over the complete release of Mr Mueller’s report began. Democrats want everything released except information redacted for national-security reasons. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the House Democratic leadership, argues that “compelling public interest” can outweigh the need for grand-jury secrecy. Democrats may also want to see Mr Trump’s written answers to Mr Mueller’s questions, which will also be a battle: Jay Sekulow, one of Mr Trump’s lawyers, said those answers were “confidential”.
Beyond the Mueller report, Mr Trump is not out of the woods. The Southern District of New York is investigating him for possible campaign-finance violations. New York’s attorney-general is probing allegations of bank and insurance fraud. Democratic-led congressional committees are looking into a range of misdeeds, including giving his son-in-law a security clearance despite serious vetting concerns, possible breaches of the constitution’s emoluments clause, accusations of money-laundering and entanglements with Russian and Saudi companies.
At the same time, Democrats are eager to move on. Mr Mueller’s report may prove a blessing in disguise, because it relegates talk of impeachment to the party’s fringes. Voters did not much care about the Russia investigation, and now Democrats will not have to talk about it on the campaign trail. A poll from Navigator Research taken shortly after the 2018 mid-terms showed it was the seventh-most important issue for Democratic voters. The second-most important was government corruption, which those state, federal and congressional investigations will keep current.
The most important was health care, toward which Democrats are again turning their attention. On March 26th they unveiled reforms designed to shore up the Affordable Care Act, including an expansion of tax credits, the creation of a national reinsurance programme, and an obligation for the White House to persuade people to sign up for health insurance.
Mr Jeffries accused Republicans of “launching an assault on health care.” He has found an unlikely ally in Mr Trump. To the consternation and surprise of many in his own party, on March 25th the Justice Department asked a federal court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Mr Trump has long been determined to tear down the legacy of his predecessor, but the electoral benefits of trying to strip health insurance from millions of Americans one year before a national election are unclear.
Democrats, conversely, are eager to fight on this ground. With Mr Mueller’s report finished, they no longer have to engage in a fruitless debate over whether Mr Trump is treasonous felon. Now they can simply ask voters to decide whether he is a good president.