Mueller report leaves Democrats in a quandary

By James Oliphant
Mueller report leaves Democrats in a quandary

By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats clamored for the speedy release of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings of his probe into whether President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign colluded with Russia. Now they finally have them, they are confronted with a choice - stay on the attack or move on.

Progressives in the party used the report to renew their calls for action, but there was little immediate consensus on how to move forward.

Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has pumped millions of dollars of his own money into a campaign calling for Trump’s removal from office, told Reuters that lawmakers in the Democratic-led House of Representatives should begin the process of impeaching Trump, a Republican, based on the evidence amassed by Mueller.

Mueller found no evidence of collusion between members of Trump's campaign and Russians, despite numerous contacts, but he amassed a wealth of evidence he said showed the president had sought to impede or control the FBI investigation. He stopped short of concluding that Trump had committed a crime but noted that the U.S. Congress had the power to address that issue.

Democratic strategists said Democrats in the House, spurred on by progressives in the chamber, would continue their congressional investigations into Trump, but that Democratic presidential candidates, who hope to appeal to moderates and independents next year, are likely to take a less aggressive approach.

"I don’t think Bob Mueller’s report is going to make a difference in Lordstown," said Robin Winston, a former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, referring the auto plant in Ohio that auto giant General Motors shuttered last month.

Winston said economic concerns were far more pressing on voters’ minds than the Russia probe and that breathless coverage of the nearly two-year-old probe had left voters “fatigued.”

Opinion polls show that the U.S. public has also largely made up its mind about the probe before the report's release on Thursday.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last month after Mueller’s conclusions were first made public showed that about half of the country still believed Trump worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election. More than half said they believe Trump tried to block the probe.

Democrats in the House signaled their efforts to investigate Trump's actions would continue. It is unclear, however, what their efforts will yield. Any attempt to force Trump from office would likely be thwarted by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The prospect of impeaching Trump has largely been downplayed by Democrats since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued it would be counter-productive. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a popular progressive Democratic lawmaker, raised the prospect again on Thursday in a tweet.

ON THE KITCHEN TABLE

Those bidding for the 2020 Democratic nomination took a more cautious path on Thursday. While many called for Mueller to testify before Congress, there was no mention of the "I word".

"It is clear that Donald Trump wanted nothing more than to shut down the Mueller investigation," U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate, said in a statement. "While we have more detail from today's report than before, Congress must continue its investigation into Trump's conduct and any foreign attempts to influence our election."

Democratic candidates are conscious that their voters are more interested in their positions on healthcare, the economy, immigration and climate change than whether or not Trump conspired with Russia or obstructed justice.

Indeed, in a two-day swing through Iowa this week, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana did not hear a question on the topic. That has been similar to the experience of other candidates who have campaigning in early voting states.

Buttigieg’s campaign said it has not been a subject on voters’ minds.

Former U.S. congressman Beto O’Rourke may have summed up the field’s collective view most succinctly while campaigning last month.

"I think the American people are going to have a chance to decide this at the ballot box in November 2020, and perhaps that’s the best way for us to resolve these outstanding questions,” he said.

Democrats could be heeding the lesson of last year’s congressional elections, when they won more than 40 House seats and gained control of the chamber. Successful candidates, particularly moderates, found traction in talking more about kitchen-table issues and less about Trump.

"The base gets ginned up – as a presidential candidate you have to decide whether you are going to cater to the base or take a longer view,” said Rodell Mollineau, who served as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Ross Colvin)