WASHINGTON - Now that we know the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, how does that reset the U.S. political landscape looking ahead to the presidential election in 2020?
According to the summary provided by Attorney General William Barr, Mueller found no conspiracy or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
But Mueller did not make a judgment on whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in connection with the Russia investigation. According to Barr, while Mueller’s report “did not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
In the end, it was Barr who decided that the evidence Mueller developed on obstruction was not sufficient to move the matter forward.
At the Capitol this week, Trump was said to be in a triumphant mood in the wake of Barr’s summary of the Mueller report.
“It was proven very strongly no collusion, no obstruction, no nothing,” Trump told reporters before his meeting with Republican senators. “We are doing so well. We have never, probably, had a time of prosperity like this. It has been great.”
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?Time for a reset
Trump’s Republican allies now believe the president has an opportunity to reset his political agenda.
“You are probably stronger today than you have been any time in your presidency. This cloud has been removed,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters. “The question for you is, how are you going to use it? What are you going to do?” That remains an open question.
Trump has talked about political retribution for those behind the Russia probe.
“There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things. I would say treasonous things against our country,” Trump said at the White House on Monday.
But political strategist Karl Rove, a former key adviser to former President George W. Bush, is among those warning the president not to devote too much time rehashing the Russia probe.
“The president should focus his time, voice and tweets on the roaring economy, impressive job creation and bigger paychecks,” Rove wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
?Democrats press for full report
Democrats remain focused on demanding that the full Mueller report be released to the public, especially given the lingering questions about why Mueller did not come to a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she found Barr’s summary letter to Congress “condescending” and “arrogant.”
Pelosi added, “No thank you, Mr. Attorney General, we do not need your interpretation. Show us the report and we can draw our own conclusions.”
It was a call echoed by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
“Our main thrust on this issue is simply transparency. Release the report, then come to conclusions,” he said.
?A boost for Trump
Analysts believe the Mueller report finding of no collusion with Russia is a political boost for the president as he heads into the 2020 presidential election cycle.
“For President Trump, the preliminary reports on the Mueller report are all very, very positive,” said American University expert Bill Sweeney. “But the questions remain about what is in the Mueller report and how will the administration release that information to the Congress and the American people.”
Sweeney predicted that the fallout from the report could be limited as the 2020 election draws closer.
“I think President Trump’s base stays with President Trump. I think those opposed to President Trump remain opposed to President Trump. So far, the Mueller report has done nothing to change the hearts or minds or soul of any undecided voter going into this election,” he said.
Recent polling seems to back that up. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found the president’s approval rating ticked up from 39 to 43 percent.
The latest Morning Consult and Politco poll found the president’s approval at 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving, virtually the same as the week before.
And the most recent Quinnipiac University poll found Trump’s approval at 39 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. That was little changed from earlier in the month.
The polls also show that Democrats may be on firm ground in demanding the Mueller report be released to the public. Eighty-two percent in the Morning Consult-Politico survey said the full Mueller report should be released, as did 84 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll.
?Focus on 2020
To many Democrats, the outcome of the Mueller report suggests they need to focus on beating the president at the polls in November 2020 instead of a long-shot effort at impeachment.
Even before the Mueller report findings were released by Barr, voters in general seemed disinclined toward impeaching Trump. A Quinnipiac poll in early March found Americans opposed to impeachment by a margin of 59 to 35 percent.
So now the political focus for both parties will shift strongly to the election contest next year.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the latest Democrat to officially join a crowded field of presidential contenders, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet says he is interested in running, as well.
In the end, Democrats could field between 15 and 20 White House contenders in the year ahead, all of whom see Trump as vulnerable.
“You would not see this many candidates running if they did not think that they had a real shot at unseating an incumbent for the first time since Bill Clinton did it in 1992 to (President) George H.W. Bush,” said George Washington University expert Matt Dallek.
But given that history favors presidents seeking a second term and that voters see the economy as strong, Democrats should be wary, said University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato.
“Democrats have to find a way to break up that Electoral College majority that Trump got. There are ways to do it, reasonable ways to do it. But it is not even close to being assured,” Sabato said via Skype.
In the wake of Mueller’s findings this week, Sabato and colleague Kyle Kondik summarized the political landscape in the weekly political newsletter known as Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
“2020 should be a close, competitive high-turnout election with both sides energized. The fate of the Trump presidency is on track to be decided at the ballot box, as opposed to a courtroom or impeachment proceeding.”