The race for the White House shifted into new territory Monday in the wake of the release of a summary of the special counsel’s report, pitting an emboldened President Trump against Democratic contenders eager to shine the political spotlight on kitchen-table issues such as health care and jobs.
As Trump declared himself vindicated by Robert S. Mueller III’s finding that he did not conspire with Russia in the 2016 election, Democrats saw an opening to focus anew on matters that many of them have argued are more critical to winning back swing voters than the findings of any investigation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) once again urged “multibillion dollar companies” to offer higher wages. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) underscored his calls to address global climate change. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) put an emphasis on her plan to boost teacher salaries and to curb the rising cost of prescription drugs.
“For too long, we have been a country that pretends to care about public education but doesn’t pay our teachers what they deserve,” Harris wrote in a blog entry Monday detailing her weekend travels through the South — a post that did not mention the special counsel.
While they were hopeful that more attention now would fall on those issues, Democratic presidential candidates nonetheless face challenges as they plow ahead in the primary contest.
Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has waved her party off from pursuing impeachment proceedings, House Democratic committee chairs are determined to probe Trump’s possible obstruction of justice and are demanding the release of Mueller’s full report, potentially pulling discussions away from the planks that most presidential candidates are trying to put front and center.
The specter of a reinvigorated Trump also applied sudden pressure on the candidates to reassure the party faithful that they could beat him in 2020. Democrats on Monday debated who in the race — and perhaps outside of it — is best positioned to take on the president, whose relentless and grievance-infused style has been stoked by the Mueller probe’s completion.
“It’s not going to be a case of slap anybody on the ballot and that person is going to win. We have to look for our most electable candidate,” former Democratic National Committee chairman Edward G. Rendell said.
That was difficult to assess given the uncertain field, with former vice president Joe Biden and others yet to make a decision on whether to run. A Fox News poll released on Sunday showed Biden and Sanders narrowly leading Trump among registered voters nationally in a hypothetical 2020 general-election race.
Top Democrats are confident that Trump remains an unpopular incumbent, and one who remains mired in congressional probes and investigations in New York — and say his political weakness was exposed in the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats made gains in suburban congressional districts.
Still, they said, the 2020 contest is unfolding as anything but a traditional referendum. David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, said Democrats must recognize that they are heading into a new political moment in a divided country, where there is not only an appetite for policy ideas and strategies to counter Trump, but a “big market out there for decency.”
“Regardless of the report, Trump’s disdain for norms and people is part of who he is and the latest developments are unlikely to make him more reflective or humble,” Axelrod said. “Who will speak to that?”
Axelrod said former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) are Democratic candidates who could get fresh looks in a party that is adjusting to the end of the Mueller probe and searching for a way to counter Trump on policy and temperament.
Booker’s allies — echoing the plans of others in the race — said he will continue to focus on issues that animate voters outside of Washington rather than concentrate on Mueller-related matters.
“When voters come out to hear the candidates that campaign in New Hampshire and quiz them, they want to hear their views on issues,” said Jim Demers, a New Hampshire Democratic strategist supporting Booker. “I don’t think any of the candidates were talking about the Mueller report, so I think things just continue to move on like they have been.”
In key early states, party leaders encouraged candidates to make robust pitches to voters on policy and personal fronts.
“Hanging the entire nomination, or the election, on an anti-Trump message, I don’t believe is a winning message or a winning strategy,” said Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen Benjamin (D), who is neutral in the primary. “I would caution anyone seeking the nomination to not put all their eggs in an anti-Trump basket.”
Buttigieg — stumping in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday — said Democrats need to beat Trump at the “ballot box.”
“Our party ought to be focusing on the conditions that made this presidency possible in the first place,” he said. “If we’re pinning all of our hopes on these procedural matters, and not paying attention to the reasons a lot of people went and voted for somebody they disliked, then we’re kind of missing the point.”
Voters have long indicated their interest in issues closer to their lives. Over the weekend, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) held three town halls across northern New Hampshire, taking 25 questions from voters. None of them asked about the Mueller findings. After an event in Conway ended without a Russia question, Warren cited “a huge disconnect between Washington and the rest of America.”
“Washington is its own bubble where people talk to each other, but it’s not paying attention to the things that touch the lives of people every single day,” Warren said. “In more than half the states in America right now, a year of child care costs more than a year at the state university. That touches people where they live.”
Still, Attorney General William P. Barr’s decision to only share snippets of Mueller’s findings with the public so far complicates that aim in the near term.
Over the weekend, candidate after candidate signaled their solidarity with House Democrats as they seek more information and the complete report, in between their stump remarks on signature issues.
“I don’t want a summary of the report. I want the whole damn report,” Sanders bellowed at a Sunday rally in San Francisco. “Because nobody, especially this president, is above the law.”
Harris — a former state attorney general who has frequently said she is ready to “prosecute the case against this president” — has called for the report be made public, even as she devotes most of her speeches to challenging the administration on issues including race, education and health care.
“The American public deserves transparency and accountability, and the Mueller report must be made public for a full accounting of what happened,” Harris said Sunday in Atlanta.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, cautioned 2020 candidates on Monday to not walk away from Russia and obstruction issues.
“The dynamic of the 2020 race may well be changed radically by the Mueller report, which we have yet to see,” he said. “We need to avoid falling into the trap about making judgments without the benefit of the Mueller report.”
On the Republican side, Trump’s political allies have sprung into action to portray Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report as a document completely vindicating the president, even although Mueller left the question of whether Trump obstructed justice unanswered.
The Republican National Committee distributed talking points Sunday to supporters appearing on television and other media, according to a recipient who shared a copy with The Washington Post. “Special Counsel Mueller’s report reaffirmed what President Trump, members of the campaign team, and the White House have repeatedly said,” read one of the points.
Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and GOP political donor, predicted the Mueller report could enhance Trump’s credibility with centrist voters in the run-up to the 2020 election, reflecting the celebratory mood in Trump’s political orbit.
“The Democrats and the media have almost guaranteed Trump’s reelection by drilling a dry hole,” he said.
Rendell said Republicans overestimate Trump’s strength, but warned his party to react not with punitive action but with a major push to protect Obama’s health-care law and push voter-pleasing issues, such as immigration.
Otherwise, he said, “it looks like we are just piling on.”
Chelsea Janes, David Weigel, Matt Viser and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.