For months, Democratic leadership has urged its members to wait until the issuance of Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in Donald Trump’s election before deciding how aggressively they should politicize the matter.
Now that the special counsel’s report has been finalized—and summarized by Attorney General Bill Barr to exonerate Trump on matters of collusion—that question remains stubbornly unresolved.
The party on Monday found itself in a familiar limbo: torn between demanding more details about, and investigations into, what transpired in 2016 and a desire to simply get on to other topics.
Publicly, Democrats said they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) told The Daily Beast that lawmakers’ goal should be to obtain Mueller’s full report and the evidence his team collected. “Everybody wants to call the whole process over before anyone has even read the Mueller report,” he said, calling Barr’s summary a “propaganda victory” for Trump.
But Raskin made clear that the continuation of this two-year process would not get in the way of Democrats’ policy agenda or impede their other avenues of oversight into the administration, like the legality of Trump continuing to profit from his business ventures while in office.
“The Mueller investigation was never a fetish for me,” he said.
Privately, members were more distraught by what they saw as a bind the Barr memo had put them in.
“I think we have to continue to insist on seeing the full report, but we have no choice but to move on and work on policy,” said one House member.
“I think we need the full report and have to pursue it, but there’s real danger in being so focused on this we lose the ability to separate Trump from his marginal ‘supporters’ who would be open to Democrats if we can articulate an economic agenda they can relate to,” said another, who, like the first, was granted anonymity to speak freely about the caucus’ thinking.
The indecision over what steps to take next proved vexing for some on the Hill, where the prevailing mood was one of frustration that so little about the Mueller report was known even as the Barr characterization of it became widely accepted. One prominent lawmaker called the atmosphere “dizzying” and predicted it could take “weeks if not months” to get to a place where members were satisfied with the material that had been made public. In certain quarters, there was fear that such limbo would complicate the party’s agenda going forward.
But others found those fears overstated. While Russian meddling and Trump’s potential complicity in it has dominated much of the cable news programming, aides note that very little of the party’s electoral apparatus has focused on the issues. Tyler Law, formerly the press secretary of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Daily Beast on Monday that while the committee did focus digital resources on the Mueller investigation during the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he could not “think of a single Russia focused TV ad or mail flight” that it ran during that cycle.
“Frankly, it wasn’t a frequent or even regular topic of conversation for any of us who were actually looking at public opinion research and were focused on winning elections,” said Law. “It wasn’t a strong message to persuade voters, and it didn’t need to be repeated in paid to motivate the base.”
Similarly, since taking power, Democrats have held hearings on a wide array of topics unrelated to the issue of Mueller, from the Trump administration’s child separation policy to the rising cost of prescription drugs—both topics that Democratic candidates frequently spoke about in the lead-up to the midterm.
But through it all, Russia has remained at the front burner of the conversation, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi being compelled to announce just two weeks ago that her deputies would not pursue the matter of impeachment until Mueller’s final report was submitted.
That report is now done. And though the contents of it remain secret, the top-line conclusions—that there was no provable attempt at collusion or conspiracy to affect the election and nothing prosecutable, though not exonerating either, on matters of obstruction of justice—have not alleviated some of the pressure that Democratic lawmakers feel.
Max Bergmann, the director of the Moscow Project at Center for American Progress, the party’s premier think tank, said it would be irresponsible for Democrats to move on from the issue of Russian election interference even in the light of Mueller’s report showing no prosecutable involvement from Trump’s team.
“Turning the page on it? I don't understand what that means. This is still an urgent national security matter,” Bergmann said. “Dems shouldn’t go running for the hills at the first sign of any adversity in the case of investigating Trump and Russia.”
“This actually should not be about the ups and downs of polls,” he went on. “It is about whether foreign interference in our elections becomes a thing and is a normalized part of American politics. And, right now, that’s sort of what Bill Barr is saying: that you can walk right up to the line of collusion but so long as you don’t cross it, you’re fine. If that is the case, there is nothing to deter that in 2020 or 2024.”
Some lawmakers appeared to agree, arguing that the cloud of suspicion had not been lifted over Trump even though the president and his team had declared total exoneration.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, argued that it was essential to know the degree to which the president had financial dealings with Russians even if those dealings didn’t provide the grist for charges of collusion. And Raskin, who serves on the House Judiciary and Oversight panels, pointed out that Democrats have hardly had a chance to use their new powers in the House majority to answer basic questions about Russia and other oversight issues.
“We just won the majority and came into power three months ago,” he said. “They did no hearings on this for two years.”
But Bergmann is, as he has acknowledged, among the minority within the party who believe Democrats should make Russia a central focus of their election efforts. And while Wyden’s and Raskin’s statements suggested a lingering appetite for keeping a focus on Trump’s ties to Russia, their position is not universally shared. Elsewhere, aides and operatives have long fretted that the party risked talking only to the already converted if it built its messaging around Russian collusion and, worse, would turn off persuadable voters.
For them, the Barr memo only reinforced that conviction.
“It’s a fine line,” said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former top political adviser. “They should pursue the report and testimony. They should pursue the counterintelligence threats that the report affirmed. But they shouldn’t do it in an obsessive way that looks like the beating of a dead horse or obscures their work on other issues of concern to the American people.”