For Democrats, harping on Trump carries risk in 2020

Michael Mathes
Senior Democrats warn that fixating on investigations of US President Donald Trump could alienate voters in 2020 (AFP Photo/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS)

Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers may be insisting on the release of Robert Mueller's entire report, but senior Democrats warn that fixating on investigations of President Donald Trump could alienate voters in 2020.

Trump, claiming vindication after his recently installed Attorney General Bill Barr concluded that the report shows Trump did not collude with Russia regarding the 2016 US election, has said he welcomes the report's publication.

Several Republicans have followed his lead.

But Democrats, aware that nothing quite fires up their base like a denunciation of the deeply controversial Trump, were left performing a delicate dance as they prepare to wage campaigns to oust him from the White House.

Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls demanded the release of the full findings and mulled their next steps, but they and their allies warned of potential overreach.

"How 2020 candidates communicate with voters is up to them, but generally speaking none of them seem to see Mueller and Russia as a winner," said Senator Brian Schatz, six of whose Democratic Senate colleagues are running for president.

"We have to do our oversight job, but that doesn't mean we're campaigning on this issue," he told AFP. "We're campaigning on health care and economics and climate action."

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a moderate contender for the nomination, concurred, telling CBS on Monday that while it is imperative for lawmakers and the American public to see the published Mueller report before charting a path forward, "2020 is going to be very focused on economic issues."

"So guess what? We can do two things at once: ensure the law is followed, and make sure we're focusing on an optimistic economic agenda for this country."

Dark horse candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went further, saying on MSNBC that "it would be a mistake for Democrats to think that the way for the Trump presidency to end is by way of investigation."

- 'Learn from our mistakes' -

Trump is unquestionably riding high. He claims credit for a robust economy and has trumpeted the recent defeat of the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria.

Barr's determination that there was no evidence of collusion was a boost to Trump's re-election prospects, and the unburdened president will be free to knock his Democratic rivals when he holds a campaign rally Thursday in Michigan.

While the prospects for Trump's impeachment have receded, many Democrats say their questions have just begun.

They have seized on one line of Mueller's text, quoted in Barr's summarizing letter to Congress, that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

They also note that Mueller's report declined to conclude whether Trump obstructed justice, although according to Barr, it sets out evidence "on both sides of the question."

Zac Petkanas, a 2016 Hillary Clinton aide who is now a Democratic strategist, said that determining how to act on that evidence "should be a question of Congress to decide on what to do, not Donald Trump's hand-picked attorney general."

The investigation has ended, he said, "but we don't know what Robert Mueller has said, and until that fact comes to light, this will dog this White House until Donald Trump is no longer there."

The Democratic chairs of six House committees, including panels on the judiciary, oversight and finance, wrote to Barr demanding that the full report be delivered to Congress by April 2, along with the underlying evidence and documents.

They also plan to press on with their probe of Trump through existing congressional investigations.

While Democrats are hardly saying collectively that it's time to move on, many are acknowledging the need to stay laser focused on pocketbook issues during the upcoming election, much as Democrats did in the 2018 midterms when they won back the House of Representatives.

"I didn't run any ads about Mueller or about the investigation, seldom got asked about it," said Senator Tim Kaine, who handily won re-election in Virginia last year. "People want to talk about health care."

Some Republicans, aware of a potentially overzealous effort by Democrats to pursue a deep dive on the Russia investigation or even push for Trump's impeachment, pointed to the cautionary tale from 20 years ago, when their party, accused of waging a partisan political war, lost House seats during the debate over impeaching Bill Clinton.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, offered simple advice to Democrats: "Learn from our mistakes."