Russia probe findings offer re-election weapon for Trump

By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as the president returns from a weekend in Florida at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's conclusion that Donald Trump did not collude with Russia to win the presidency in 2016 gives the president a powerful weapon to use against his Democratic opponents and a potential boost to what is shaping up to be a tough bid for re-election in 2020.

Mueller's conclusion that neither Trump nor his aides conspired with Russia in 2016 takes away a central charge that Democrats have flung at Trump for two years - that he did not win the presidency fairly or cleanly. The allegations have played out on an endless loop on cable TV news shows, overshadowing Trump's presidency from day one.

Democrats have vowed to continue congressional investigations into the 2016 election campaign and Trump's business practices. But without the solid foundation of a Mueller report that found evidence of any crimes by the president, they now risk seeming to overplay their hand.

"This is a gold star day for Donald Trump," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "Now the shackles are off. He's able to demonize the news media and Democrats as perpetuating what he calls a hoax. And he’ll be able to use his innocence as fodder for the campaign trail."

The question for Trump now is whether he will be able to bring a minimum of discipline to his campaign messaging and to the presidency itself.

History suggests he will have trouble with self-discipline. Just last week, he was immersed in a strange fight with a dead man, sharply criticizing the late Republican Senator John McCain and falsely accusing him of being at the root of some of the collusion allegations against him.

He has also been prone to making baffling abrupt decisions, such as occurred last week when he called off a round of sanctions against North Korea before they had even been imposed.

Despite the Mueller report's conclusions, Trump remains an intemperate president, eager to lash out at any and all critics and perceived slights.

"This was an illegal takedown that failed," Trump said on Sunday, even though Mueller left open the question of whether the former real estate magnate had attempted to obstruct the Russia probe, which did find extensive evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

"Now is the time to get back on the offense on the economy and growth," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "This is a good time to get back to a real healthy dose of message discipline for the entire administration, department-wide and the White House. That's what you do when something like this happens."

Trump, on a golfing weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, got the news in his private quarters at his Mar-a-Lago retreat from White House counsel Emmett Flood, and watched TV coverage of the Mueller report in his cabin on Air Force One.

Trump's initial comments in reacting to the Mueller conclusion suggests he is not inclined to move past the investigation.

Speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, Trump called for Democrats to be investigated, expanding on his often repeated assertion that the Mueller probe was Democrat-inspired. Mueller was appointed by Trump's Department of Justice in 2017 after he fired FBI director James Comey.

"It's a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest it's a shame that your president has had to go through this," Trump said. "Before I even got elected it began, and it began illegally."

Trump's comments could foreshadow an effort by his supporters to seek payback for the cloud that has hung over his time in the White House.

"I'm interested in moving on and trying to get this behind us, but people have to pay for what they've done for the past two years," said former Trump campaign aide David Bossie. “We must investigate the investigators.”

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump had no plans to request that his attorney general open an investigation into the president's political opponents.

CHALLENGES FOR DEMOCRATS

Trump's path to re-election remains a perilous one. Analysts say he will probably need to win the Midwestern states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, just as he did in his improbable 2016 victory, and Democrats are already pouring resources into those states.

Trump will foreshadow his campaign message on Thursday night when he headlines a "Make America Great Again" rally in Michigan.

Trump supporters viewed the Mueller report as a blow to the more than a dozen Democrats who are campaigning for their party's 2020 presidential nomination.

“This is very problematic for any Democrat who’s running for president in 2020 that was hoping they would face a weakened or beaten-down President Trump,” former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said. “In fact, President Trump will likely see a ratings boost coming out of this and a strong tailwind pushing him towards the upcoming election."

Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown that Americans decided early on in Mueller's investigation whether they thought Trump was guilty of collusion or not. The polling found few undecided voters.

Brinkley said Democrats will need to adjust their tactics and emphasize their differences with Trump's record on issues ranging from healthcare and climate change to immigration.

"Some of those charges are going to have to rise to be the main charges against Trump," he said, noting there was fatigue with the Russia issue.

(Reporting By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Ross Colvin and Chris Reese)