President Trump summarized the special counsel report on the day of its release with four words in all caps — “NO COLLUSION. NO OBSTRUCTION.”
The first two were not addressed by the report. The second two falsely described Robert S. Mueller III’s findings.
But the pithy declaration, set in a Game of Thrones “Game Over” meme and repeated frequently by Trump’s surrogates on television, helped to establish a reading of the report’s implications that Trump would embrace in the days to come. In response, Democratic leaders offered no memes or catchphrases of their own. They called instead for less redaction of the document and more congressional hearings.
It was an appropriate coda for an investigation that has always pitted at its core a nuanced examination of fact and law — 448 pages, footnotes included — against the blunt force of Trump’s sloganeering.
For Democrats aiming to topple Trump in the 2020 election, the contrast was a stark reminder of the challenges ahead in a country where political information travels largely through polarized channels that can be shaped by a president fluent in angry denunciations of his enemies, tribal appeals to his base and frequent misdirection.
On its face, the Mueller report revealed damning details of Trump’s attempts to interfere in a federal investigation and his campaign’s multiple contacts with Russian officials, some of whom sought to help him in the 2016 election. But rather than “the end of my presidency” — an outcome Trump had predicted upon Mueller’s appointment — the political impact of the report’s release is uncertain, and it is unlikely to trigger his impeachment.
Deceptive, embarrassing and potentially criminal behavior that Trump once decried as “fake news” has now been verified in great detail, on the basis of witness statements taken under oath and newly revealed criminal investigations. At the same time, a divided opposition party that once spoke of Mueller as a potential savior now speaks of him as merely one part of a larger process to publicize Trump’s misbehavior before the 2020 campaign.
Of the 18 Democratic candidates running for president, none came out to call for impeachment proceedings against Trump in the first 24 hours after the report’s release. Only two, former housing secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called for forcing Trump out of office since then.
Most strategists planning for the general election campaign against Trump expect to focus far less on Trump’s behavior and personal qualities than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 election.
“If in a year I am talking about the Mueller report, I am losing,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who advises the presidential campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). “Because the election is going to be about the economy.”
By leaving behind the daily spectacle of Trump’s provocations, they see a chance to return to the 2018 playbook to focus on issues that more directly affect voters. They won that year’s midterm elections with economic arguments and a focused message about Republican efforts to reduce access to affordable health care.
“Donald Trump wins in a reality show and loses in reality,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “If he is able to brand things like a reality show host, he will win the debate. But that only works until people start to see the consequences.”
House Democrats, meanwhile, plan to take on the separate task of trying to distill and publicize the most alarming parts of the Mueller report in hopes of making the president’s behavior in office feel consequential for more voters.
They are preparing a rival reality show of their own through hearings with Attorney General William P. Barr and others. Democrats privately say their models are the Watergate hearings into President Richard M. Nixon’s misdeeds and the Republican hearings about the 2012 Benghazi attack, which were designed to damage Clinton’s reputation.
“We will have major hearings. Barr and Mueller are just the first,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), in a radio interview Friday. “We will call many other people.”
Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, have come out of the box with clearly defined lines — no collusion, no obstruction — and little concern for accurately capturing the nuance of what Mueller actually found.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway announced that she is ready to accept apologies from Trump’s critics. Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have made clear that the president will continue to deny parts of the report that are unfavorable to him, even though Barr has praised the “thoroughness” of the work.
“The end result of the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history is No Collusion with Russia (and No Obstruction),” Trump tweeted on Saturday, continuing his focused theme. “Pretty Amazing!”
The president’s position is strengthened by his political environment. He enjoys a Gallup approval rating near historic highs of 45 percent in April, up from 39 percent in March. The Republican Senate caucus is solidly opposed to his impeachment, and he maintains a firm handle on the same national divisions and media landscape that he exploited to win office.
Those Republicans who have spoken out against Trump for the findings in the report have been measured in their remarks and are unlikely to threaten Trump’s position in the White House or the GOP. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the report was “unflattering” of Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he was “sickened” by the “dishonesty and misdirection” of White House officials, including Trump.
Ever since he entered the 2016 presidential race and began dispatching rivals with schoolyard nicknames, Trump has shown a remarkable ability to create and deploy barbed catchphrases that cut through the din.
This time, the scandal was not a payoff for an adult-film actress or an audio recording of Trump boasting about sexual assault. With Mueller’s report, Trump faced definitive documentation of his repeated attempts to disrupt a federal investigation and deceive the public.
The Russian campaign to help Trump’s campaign, which he had also denied and minimized, was laid bare, as were many contacts between suspected Russian agents and his advisers that stopped short of the legal definition coordination or conspiracy. As for the catchword “collusion,” adopted by Trump, Mueller said it was not a legal standard to steer a criminal investigation.
Mueller determined that it would be improper to recommend criminal charges against a sitting president, though he left open the possibility that the president had committed a crime. He also argued that “Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office.”
But the current media environment will make it difficult to create a sequel to the drama of the Watergate congressional investigation, which ultimately forced Nixon from office. Unlike Nixon, Trump has launched a sustained campaign to discredit the law enforcement institutions and findings with claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.
“As much as Nixon was prone to shade the truth, there were some things he would not say if they were too different from reality,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “Nixon had to go through a mainstream media that if he said things that were not true they would put them in context.”
Trump by contrast has created his own media channels, and been aided by supportive networks of journalists and pundits he frequently praises. “Let’s say the Mueller report had been released in the media climate of 1973 and 1974,” Beschloss added. “This would have been a lot more damaging.”
Ultimately, to fight back, Democrats in Congress will have to find a way to engage Trump on his own terms, with clear messaging and repeated talking points, something they struggled to do in the first days after the Mueller report. It is far too soon to tell whether Democrats can change this in the coming months with congressional hearings and Capitol Hill spectacle.
The marching orders are clear, said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who also worked for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“Conduct a follow-through investigation out of the committees that is really just an attempt to enter into the record that which most of the public will never read in the Mueller report,” he said. “Turn it into something that gets played out on a very public stage.”
Trump will be ready and waiting with a top-rated reality show of his own.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.