For Democrats, the Mueller report turns their politics upside down

(Alex Brandon | The Associated Press) President Donald Trump speaks with the media after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Washington. The Justice Department said Sunday that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation did not find evidence that President Donald Trump's campaign "conspired or coordinated" with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Washington • For President Donald Trump, the finding by special counsel Robert Mueller that there was no coordination or conspiracy involving Trump campaign officials or associates and the Russians, despite myriad contacts that have been documented, was a sweet moment. He will not only savor the moment; he will stuff it down the throats of all those who claimed otherwise. The tweets in all caps began Sunday and will continue for months.

For Democrats, the Mueller report turns upside down the politics of what lies ahead. From what seemed a position of strength, or at least the ability to stay on offense, they are now looking at the road ahead in a far more problematic position. The issue of impeachment was always in question, given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s cautionary view. At this point, it is off the table. Beyond that are difficult questions about what investigations House Democrats should pursue and to what end.

For nearly two years, Democrats have eagerly awaited the Mueller report, having already connected many of the dots of contacts between Trump associates and the Russians. Now that Mueller has finished his work with no additional indictments, with a finding of no collusion and a decision of no judgment on whether Trump obstructed justice, things have changed significantly. Democrats must now reckon with a far different set of political realities.

In a four-page letter released Sunday, Attorney General William Barr outlined the broad conclusions of the Mueller report but provided only the barest of information about what is in the document. Many, many questions remain, and deservedly so. The most important of those is what Mueller found about possible obstruction of justice by Trump.

The special counsel and his team punted on that question. According to Barr's letter, Mueller states that "while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." In their review of the evidence, Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that what Mueller presented did not meet the standards required to charge the president with obstruction.

Others are likely to read the evidence another way, which is why Democrats are demanding that Barr release the full report, as well as the underlying evidence, as soon as possible. The details will be hugely important.

Barr on Friday promised as much transparency as possible; on Sunday, he outlined some boundaries — grand jury testimony, for example — that could keep some of the evidence from public view. Democrats and Republicans have said that it is in the public interest for the full report to released, although it could be awhile before that happens.

But is the absence of a conclusion or recommendation about obstruction a gift for the Democrats or a trap? By declining to exonerate the president, Mueller has whetted the appetites of those who believe, based simply on what is already in the public domain, that Trump repeatedly sought to interfere with the special counsel's work. They are understandably eager to pursue this question, not only by demanding the full report, but by calling Barr and Mueller to testify.

They will do this, however, with the issue clouded by partisanship. Some Democrats are claiming that Barr was not willing to charge Trump because he doesn't believe that a sitting president can be indicted. Barr wrote that his and Rosenstein's decision "was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president." That won't satisfy those who think the president obstructed justice. But it is all that Trump's allies will need to argue against those who pursue an obstruction charge.

Right now, the public relations battle is running far ahead of any legal issues yet to be adjudicated by House Democrats. Trump claims "total exoneration," which is explicitly not true based on Mueller's report. But it is exactly how he has played things as a candidate and as president, which is to say he exaggerates in his own favor and slams opponents as hard as he can. On Sunday night, his reelection campaign released a video called "Collusion Hoax!" It shows a string of Democrats claiming that there was evidence of collusion and then stamps them with red letters reading, "Wrong."

Democrats put their faith in Mueller. Now they are questioning how and why he did what he did. Should he have forced the president to answer questions in person, rather than in writing? Why didn't he make a judgment on obstruction, rather than turning it over to the attorney general to make perhaps the most important call of the investigation? Did he interpret his mandate too narrowly? The second-guessing, still at a low level, reflects the frustration among Democrats and opponents of the president who already had connected dots that Mueller found not conclusive.

The investigative machinery in the House is already cranking up, with broad requests for documents and multiple lines of inquiry planned across several committees. They go well beyond the issue of Russian interference. But just how far now?

Pelosi, D-Calif., who earlier made her views about impeachment clear when she said Trump is "just not worth it," has encouraged her committee chairs to carry out their constitutional responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch — a responsibility that Republicans ducked completely when they were in charge. Will there be a reevaluation in light of Mueller's report?

Trump, his family members and others around them are not out of danger. The investigations in the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia and elsewhere are comprehensive and ongoing. They involve hush money and campaign finance violations, the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation and the Trump inaugural committee.

But the length and breadth of the investigations by Congress, as well as the justification for them, probably will now be viewed through a different lens, one more favorable to the president. After two years of insisting that there was collusion, the Democrats have been undermined by Mueller. On obstruction — what some thought was an open case — Republicans will do everything in their power to question the legitimacy of further digging on Capitol Hill.

The Mueller inquiry was never top of mind for many — or perhaps most — Americans. Additional investigations will command even less attention with these voters, even if they examine important questions or misconduct. House Democrats will have to think carefully about any potential payoffs. The party's 2020 presidential candidates will have to consider whether there is a public appetite, beyond those who already despise the president, for investigations that could turn into partisan spectacles on Capitol Hill.

That’s hardly where Democrats expected to be on the weekend that Mueller finally delivered his report to the Justice Department.