Life after Mueller: How Trump, Democrats, and the nation can move on

Why We Wrote This

After two years of investigation, how can Americans and lawmakers find a path forward? By returning focus to issues that matter to voters most.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
President Donald Trump addresses reporters next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senator Roy Blount, R-Mo., as he arrives for a closed Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 26, 2019.

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For the first time since Donald Trump became president, the Department of Justice is no longer looking into whether President Trump or his associates conspired with Russians to tip the 2016 election in his favor. But the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation hasn’t changed the fierce partisanship coursing through Washington.

So how can an exhausted nation move on? By renewing focus on the business of governing, analysts say. For politicians across the board, including members of Congress, Mr. Trump, and the 16 Democrats running to replace him, that means addressing the issues Americans care about – starting with the economy, health care, and education.

Historians note that in past times of American turmoil, the “winner” traditionally behaves with some magnanimity and that all parties exercise some humility. That doesn’t seem to be operative today, says David Pietrusza, most recently the author of “TR’s Last War.”

“A little grace in times of victory, goes a long way toward the healing process,” writes Mr. Pietrusza in an email. “Unfortunately, neither Trumpites this day or Democrats in 2018 seem disposed to even insincere displays of much grace, mercy, or sympathy.”

Two days after Attorney General William Barr released his summary of the Mueller investigation, everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Everything has changed, in that special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian election meddling is finally over. For the first time during Donald Trump’s presidency, the Department of Justice isn’t looking into whether President Trump or his associates conspired with Russians to tip the 2016 election in his favor. Mr. Trump did not collude, and will not be charged with obstruction of justice, the Barr summary said.

Yet nothing has changed. Washington partisanship is as fierce as ever with Mr. Trump crying “treason” over the initial launch of the investigation and some Democrats still pushing for impeachment. Mr. Trump still faces a raft of litigation and investigations at the federal and state level and numerous inquiries by Democratic-run House committees.

So how can an exhausted nation move on? By renewing focus on the business of governing, analysts say. For politicians across the board, including members of Congress, Mr. Trump, and the 16 Democrats running to replace him, that means addressing the issues Americans care about – starting with the economy, health care, and education.

The Barr summary of the Mueller report “took the air out of everything,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It allowed Republicans to claim total vindication, even though that’s not quite the case. And it completely disoriented Democrats, who thought the Mueller report would give them some momentum.”

Democrats eager to end Mr. Trump’s presidency now know that to remove him from office, they’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: by nominating a strong opponent, and defeating Mr. Trump in the November 2020 election. Impeachment is effectively off the table.

Republicans, too, are focused on 2020 and making sure they hold on to the White House. And like the Democrats, they are trying to show they can walk and chew gum at the same time – dealing with investigations while also focusing on policy.

“My advice to the president, for whatever it’s worth, is that you’re probably stronger today than you’ve been any time in your presidency,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, told reporters Monday on Capitol Hill. “The question for you is, how do you use it?”

The president continues to cite infrastructure as the top area for common ground with Democrats. But he’s also stepping up his battle against the Affordable Care Act. Late Monday, the Trump administration said in a court filing that it now backs full repeal of the Obama-era health care reform, in a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

House Democrats had already planned to unveil their own plan for health care Tuesday, which aims to lower costs and protect people with pre-existing conditions. In remarks to reporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she welcomed the opportunity to address the issue. Indeed, it was a winning one for her party in the 2018 midterms, which saw Democrats regain control of the House.

“We won control of the House of Representatives, not focused on Russia, not focused on collusion, not focused on impeachment, not focused on obstruction of justice, but focused on health care and on infrastructure and on cleaning up corruption in Washington, D.C.,” New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Tuesday. “That is why we’re focused on those issues now that we’re in the majority.”

On the campaign trail, Democrats running for president also say that issues are driving the discussion with voters – health care, guns, climate change, college debt – not the Mueller investigation. Though since Friday, when it was announced that Mr. Mueller had finished his investigation and handed in his report to Mr. Barr, Democratic candidates have one by one argued loudly that the full Mueller report should be made public.

And the Democratic House committee chairs who have waited for their time in the majority to use the investigative tools at their disposal and conduct serious oversight of Mr. Trump are hardly going to stand down. Democrats insist they can maintain the right balance in doing both – issues and investigation.

Republican strategist Rick Tyler, a Trump critic, says the Democrats face a danger of overreach.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t need oversight,” says Mr. Tyler. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find out where all the inauguration money went. But if it looks like they’re just going after the president because they don’t like him, that’s a dangerous precedent to set.”

The chairs of the main House investigative committees aren’t backing down. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who heads the House Intelligence Committee, still insists that evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is “in plain sight.” Also, Democrats note, Mr. Barr explicitly states in his summary that on the issue of obstruction of justice, “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Therefore, gaining access to the Mueller report and the underlying materials on which it is based – after the expected redactions to protect classified and other privileged material – will be crucial for Democratic investigators. It could also help Mr. Trump, if it supports his message that he’s in the clear.

Historians note that in past times of American turmoil, the “winner” traditionally behaves with some magnanimity and that all parties exercise some humility. That doesn’t seem to be operative today, says David Pietrusza, most recently the author of “TR’s Last War.”

At Appomattox in 1865, he notes, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant allowed his vanquished foes to keep their sidearms, and even then the nation’s wounds festered for a very long time.

“A little grace in times of victory goes a long way toward the healing process,” writes Mr. Pietrusza in an email. “Unfortunately, neither Trumpites this day or Democrats in 2018 seem disposed to even insincere displays of much grace, mercy, or sympathy.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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