WASHINGTON (AP) — For many Democrats, Robert Mueller’s investigation has long stood as their best, last chance to take down President Donald Trump before the next election.
The summary of Mueller’s report released on Sunday not only lacked that punch, it now forces a moment of reckoning over how far to take the investigations ahead.
It’s a delicate issue heading into the 2020 election, where Democrats are balancing the wishes of the liberal, anti-Trump base and the threat of Republicans accusing them of ginning up political witch hunts.
After the summary revealed Mueller found revealed no evidence of Russian collusion, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale blamed Democrats as having “lied” to Americans and taking them “on a frantic, chaotic, conspiracy-laden roller coaster.”
The new landscape leaves Democrats on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail facing a more complicated path forward.
For weeks, they have worked to set expectations, assuring restless liberals across the country that Mueller’s work was the beginning, rather than the end, of the inquiries.
Facing pressure from the base to dig deeper into Trump’s personal and professional issues, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are mounting their own far-reaching congressional probes into the Republican president before and after he took office. And with only a summary of Mueller’s report released by Trump’s hand-picked attorney general so far, they’re threatening to subpoena Mueller’s full report and promising an onslaught of high-drama hearings.
But that intense focus on probe is raising some concerns that it could prove a distraction.
One of the many 2020 presidential candidates, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, called Sunday’s findings “further evidence that it would be a mistake for Democrats to think that the way for the Trump presidency to end is by way of investigation.”
Trump became president in part because Democrats in 2016 made the contest too much about him, and not enough about voters, Buttigieg said on MSNBC. He called on his party to stay focused on issues important to people’s everyday lives, such as the economy, racial justice and climate change.
Another contender disagreed with those calling for Democrats to move on. “If the investigation into that attack was covered up or obstructed, there has to be accountability and a reckoning,” Beto O’Rourke told reporters Sunday in Las Vegas.
Most of the other Democratic contenders offered a far simpler message, calling for the release of Mueller’s full report — a safe play, politically, as polls show Americans are largely on their side. The House voted overwhelming last week to release it, 420-0.
Still, it’s unclear how far Democrats can go in pursuing the investigations that are being demanded by the base of their party without alienating the wide swath of more centrist voters Trump is trying to keep close ahead of the 2020 election.
Democratic strategist Brian Fallon said it won’t be tops on the agenda for presidential candidates or those running for Senate. But he said Democrats are on solid ground as they push for release of the report and conduct oversight voters demanded while also focusing on the kitchen table issues — health care, climate change — important to voters. It’s the same blueprint Democrats used when voters gave the party control of the House in the midterm election.
“I don’t think the public expects Congress to be shrinking violets,” he said. “They expect Democrats to pursue oversight and not go overboard.”
Liberal activists are already preparing for nationwide protests should the Trump administration not release the full report or appear to be hiding key evidence. After waiting two years for damning evidence on the Republican president, the Democratic base is unlikely to let the issue fade quietly away.
“There is an enormous amount of energy behind this,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas. “And I think people should not underestimate what a White House cover-up will unleash if they decide to hide one word of the report or underlying evidence. We are at the beginning of a long fight to ensure that there’s not a cover-up.”
For Democrats in Congress, pursuing the investigations on their own now is a risky strategy.
In Mueller they had a truth-teller beyond reproach, whose credentials and bipartisan backing gave the questions swirling around Trump more than an air of credibility. Democrats put him “right next to Jesus,” cracked Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio on Sunday. Republicans, for the most part, backed Mueller’s work.
As Democrats go it alone with congressional investigation, they lose that stamp of impartiality and expose themselves to Trump’s constant cries of “presidential harassment.”
“What will now follow is mainly political harassment leading to, perhaps, a futile impeachment exercise,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tweeted.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has drawn criticism from some in the party for her reluctance to pursue impeachment — she has said Trump isn’t worth it. The speaker views impeachment as politically fraught unless Democrats have the groundswell of public opinion behind them. Front of mind is her experience during the Republican drive to impeach President Bill Clinton, which voters saw as overly partisan, especially once the independent counsel’s report was released, and contributed to GOP electoral losses.
Instead, Pelosi frames the investigations ahead as Congress exerting its constitutional duty to the necessary checks and balances on the executive that voters want. Democrats are sweeping beyond the Russia probe into the president’s potential conflicts — his tax returns, financial dealings, Trump Hotel — in the tangled intersection of business and politics.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a member of the Judiciary Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said this is perhaps an “unparalleled” moment in the country’s history and Mueller’s work is just the start.
“I don’t think there’s a risk of overreach when you talk about criminal acts — multiple criminal acts — conducted by the top people around the president of the United States,” she said. “We have to lay it out for ourselves and lay it for the people and see where it leads us.”
But the political risks for Democrats loom large. Trump’s team flashed a newly emboldened offensive strategy after years of playing defense.
“Hang in there Dems,” White House aide Dan Scavino tweeted after the report was released, “ya all have SIX more YEARS of TRUMP.”
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