At town halls from New Hampshire to California this weekend, the dozen-plus Democrats running for the White House were happy to field questions about the economy, health care, and climate change.
They were also prepared to field an occasional question about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report. The questions didn’t come however, leading some candidates to conclude that voters care more, at the end of the day, about pocketbook issues.
Even on a weekend when the Mueller report was the talk of Washington, most outside of nation’s capital appeared indifferent to the scandals and investigations that have dogged the White House. It should be a lesson, some Democratic candidates said.
“I hope this motivates all of us to stay focused on the issues that really impact our lives in the everyday,” Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana and Democratic presidential contender opined on MSNBC late Sunday.
Not everyone sees it his way. Many Democratic stalwarts say that even though the special counsel’s investigation into Russian collusion did not prove collusion by the president, lawmakers in Congress should continue to press the case for impeachment against Donald Trump.
“The president would obviously like to score a major propaganda victory at this moment and we have a responsibility to remind people that the one quote we have from the Mueller report says this is not a complete and total exoneration,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a member of the House Oversight Committee, told ThinkProgress on Monday.
“Not only is this not the end of the story, [but] we haven’t even read the story yet. I reject the idea that Attorney General Barr should be able to control the narrative in this completely lopsided way.”
For months, Democrats thought that the Mueller report would give them the ammunition they needed to bring down President Donald Trump, whether by impeachment or at the ballot box, and they expected that the president’s downfall would provide a unifying message that the party would rally around.
The report was expected to buoy Democrats’ own electoral prospects by giving them a moral high ground from which to campaign, while pointing an accusatory finger at the president. Instead, Mueller’s findings have left Democrats in disarray, and rather than uniting, the report has thus far left the party fractured. Mueller reportedly cleared Trump of collusion, leaving Democrats scrambling to identify the best way forward.
Some continue to believe that they should press on with efforts to impeach the president for a litany of other misdeeds and crimes. Others, deflated by the top-line findings of the highly anticipated report — summarized in a four-page synopsis over the weekend by Barr — seem to think the time has come for Democrats to abandon plans to prosecute Trump and focus instead on the upcoming election.
“Time to get to the hard work of winning the election,” wrote Barack Obama’s former top aide Dan Pfeiffer in a tweet, apparently ready to cut his losses with Mueller.
Time to get to the hard work of winning the election
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) March 24, 2019
The special counsel did not come to a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, and no lawmaker or member of the public has seen Mueller’s complete report. Democrats are united in calling for the full report to be released, but with the 2020 election around the corner, a schism has begun to emerge over how best to proceed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), to the dismay of some of her own members, said weeks ago that impeachment was not on the table. According to an Axios report Monday, she is concerned that some in her party could be focusing too much on obstruction.
Pelosi “knows why she won in ’18 and how to win again in ’20,” Steve Elmendorf, a former House Democratic aide told the website: She emphasized “kitchen table” issues like health care, not impeachment and investigations.
For now, House committees seem prepared to keep up their recently initiated investigations into the Trump administration. Late Sunday night, House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) announced that the committee would call Barr to testify “in the near future.”
“Special counsel Mueller worked for 22 months to determine the extent to which President Trump obstructed justice,” Nadler tweeted. “Attorney General Barr took two days to tell the American people that while the president is not exonerated, there will be no action by DOJ.”
Raskin rejected the idea that the Mueller investigation doesn’t concern average voters, who face everyday mundane concerns like balancing a checkbook and paying the mortgage.
“The corruption of government is a pocketbook issue, and, you know, we are focused on the way in which the presidency has been turned into a money making operation and an instrument of self-enrichment for the president, for his family, for his business, and for his friends,” the congressman said. “That is the real Achilles heel of the Trump administration.”
The Daily Beast, meanwhile, reported that the House Intelligence Committee is considering calling on Mueller himself to testify.
American University history professor Allan Lichtman, an expert on impeachment, said the special counsel investigation only considers indictable crimes, and that Pelosi’s decision to take impeachment off the table was misguided.
“It’s a terribly flawed idea. Pelosi has just been misguided throughout this whole process, forfeiting the responsibility of the House of Representatives,” Lichtman said. “Everyone misinterprets the [Bill] Clinton impeachment. They think it was a big mistake by Republicans, but it took them to a vastly bigger prize — the presidency.”