Overreach and overkill are two of the most common errors in politics. A week after the release of Attorney General William P. Barr’s gloss on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, it’s clear that President Trump’s characteristic response — to lash out at enemies and entangle his party in his obsessions — has prevented Republicans from using the end of the special counsel’s investigation as a pivot point.
It’s also obvious that Democratic presidential hopefuls, like the party’s House candidates in 2018, are largely ignoring the noise around the Russia scandal. Instead, they’re piling up rafts of proposals on close-to-home subjects: education, child care, infrastructure and economics. They are talking to the voters who will decide the 2020 election in a way Trump isn’t.
By now, no one ever expects Trump to be gracious. But his inability just to declare victory and move on after Barr’s favorable summary of Mueller’s findings has frozen public opinion where it was before the latest news. This is not good for the GOP.
After the attorney general issued his letter, Trump escalated his long-running war against Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. On Thursday, all its Republican members decided to join his campaign, signing a letter asking Schiff to step down. It was a big mistake. They afforded him the opportunity to broadcast his epic rebuttal, recounting the connections between the president, his campaign and Russia.
Schiff invoked the Republican committee members’ unanimity to tie them all into an across-the-board apologia for Trump. Over and over, Schiff deployed the formulation “You might think it’s okay” to suggest that the GOP was indifferent to a long list of Trump’s Russia-linked transgressions. He concluded: “But I don’t think it’s okay. I think it’s immoral. I think it’s unethical. I think it’s unpatriotic. And yes, I think it’s corrupt.”
Schiff’s profile, along with the reach of his devastating denunciation, was further enhanced that evening when Trump unleashed a vicious, profane attack on his adversary at a campaign-style rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.. Trump belittled Schiff’s appearance — appearances being everything to Trump — and claimed “complete vindication” on the “collusion delusion.”
Of course, even Barr’s pro-Trump account of Mueller’s report conceded that the special counsel went out of his way to say that his inquiry “does not exonerate” Trump on obstruction of justice. But the larger problem is that Trump’s inability to let go of the Russia controversy kicks away the opportunity he and his party might have exploited to reset the public conversation.
At least some Republicans know how foolish this is. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political maestro, offered an almost plaintive Wall Street Journal column under the headline “Move On From Robert Mueller, Mr. President.” Trump recklessly went exactly the other way in Michigan. Rove urged Trump “to pivot to issues, like the economy and the opioid crisis, that matter to swing voters” and cited a Fox News poll underscoring that the energy in politics is still on the side of Trump’s opponents: Only 27 percent of voters strongly approve of Trump, while 42 percent strongly disapprove.
Rove’s instincts about the need for a new narrative were confirmed by a wave of new polls, including a March 25-27 NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll finding 54 percent of Americans saying they definitely plan to vote against Trump in 2020, while only 35 percent saying they would definitely vote for him. The survey also found that 75 percent back the core Democratic demand that the full Mueller report be made public, a warning to Barr that excessive redactions or continued slow-walking of its release could incite public discontent. Only 36 percent said the report cleared Trump of any wrongdoing. This is not a man who should still be playing to his base by stoking the Russia story.
One sign Trump might be realizing that the Barr letter has not had the gloriously cleansing effect he hoped for: The president’s absurd threats to close down the U.S.-Mexico border and end assistance to three Central American countries, reinforced Sunday by his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on ABC’s “This Week.” Trump always cries wolf about the border when he needs to distract. But this, too, was largely about appealing to his core supporters, not reaching out beyond them — and on Sunday afternoon, he could not resist sending out tweets critical of Schiff and “the phony and fraudulent investigation.”
If anyone is listening to Rove’s counsel, it’s Democratic presidential candidates. Last week, while Washington was consumed by Mueller news, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) rolled out a detailed plan on infrastructure — the quintessential middle-of-the-road concern. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added to her impressive compendium of policy innovations with an approach to agriculture stressing the interests of small farmers over those of agribusiness. For her part, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-
Calif.) wrote an opinion piece in The Post highlighting her proposal to raise teacher pay across the country.
In other words, Democrats who would be president are paying far more attention to questions that resonate in Iowa, New Hampshire and the industrial Midwest than to what transpired in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Trump’s biggest problem may be his difficulty in doing the same.