In a letter to Congress summarizing the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Attorney General William Barr wrote that the special counsel found that the Trump campaign did not coordinate with Russia. On the question of obstruction of justice, though, Mueller didn’t come to a conclusion, stating that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” The ball is now in Congress’s court, so you can expect a political fight in the coming days and weeks to make the full contents of the report public.
In January, I outlined five scenarios for how the Mueller investigation could end. Barr’s summary decisively avoids the worst-case outcome for Trump — being implicated in some form of coordination with Russia during the 2016 election. As the Mueller investigation unfolded, the special counsel’s team described the myriad ways that the Russian government worked to boost the Trump campaign and undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy — we just didn’t know whether the Trump campaign was linked to those efforts. So in that sense, Barr’s summary is very good for the president, because Barr noted that despite multiple overtures from Russia to assist with the 2016 Trump campaign, no campaign official “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government. The conclusiveness of Barr’s language may also put a damper on House Democrats’ efforts to continue to investigate potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Barr’s summary does, however, fall fairly squarely into the second scenario I outlined, which was related to whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to illegally or inappropriately influence investigations of Russia’s conduct in 2016. In that scenario, I noted that while the evidence might not be sufficient to charge Trump with obstruction of justice — which is a high bar, legally — the report could have significant political fallout, fueling Democrats’ demands to make the full report public and spurring further investigations of the president.
What happens next will mainly hinge on whether the full report is made public. Democrats in Congress have been calling for the report to be released for the past few weeks (and they’ve also demanded access to Mueller’s investigative files), but the decision is in Barr’s hands for now. House Democrats can subpoena the report, but that will likely lead to a potentially lengthy court battle over whether parts of the report are confidential or covered by executive privilege. Democrats are already questioning the decision-making process that led Barr to conclude that Mueller’s report did not support obstruction of justice charges. House Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler tweeted that he will call Barr to testify before Congress.
Nadler’s statement suggests Democrats aren’t finished asking questions about Trump’s conduct — particularly as it relates to potential obstruction of justice. While Mueller apparently chose not to say whether or not the president obstructed justice, he has given Democrats important ammunition to demand the full report. That’s because although the report didn’t ultimately make a determination about whether Trump illegally obstructed justice — that was left up to Barr, who concluded that Trump’s behavior did not warrant charges — it does contain “evidence on both sides of the question.” This evidence could be quite damaging for the president politically if it’s made public, particularly since obstruction of justice is also an impeachable offense.
That said, Democrats shouldn’t necessarily expect the full report to change the minds of the president’s supporters. Over the course of Mueller’s investigation, the partisan divide in public opinion has solidified, with Republicans in particular growing more distrustful of the special counsel.
Now the Democrats have an even higher bar to clear when trying to counteract Trump’s claims that they’re conducting “ridiculous partisan investigations.” So while Barr’s summary leaves the door open for further investigations of Trump by House Democrats and could lead to the full report becoming public, the lack of a decisive legal conclusion from Mueller may also make it very difficult to change Americans’ minds about the president, regardless of what’s in the report.
It’s rare for Americans to agree on anything these days, particularly when it comes to a politically charged issue like special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But a CNN poll released last Thursday found that a whopping 87 percent of Americans (including 92 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans) believe that once the Mueller investigation ends, there should be a full public report on the findings, whatever they may be.
There is no guarantee that the findings of the investigation will ever be made public, and in the meantime, Mueller has remained famously silent about what he’s found. But even the dribbles of information that have come out through court filings have slowly driven Democrats and Republicans further apart. As you can see in the chart below, which tracks polls of Mueller’s favorability over the past two years,1 there has been a small increase in how favorably Americans overall view Robert Mueller (the purple line),2 but when you break it down by party, it’s clear that opinions about the special counsel have become more polarized.
Since Mueller himself has not been forthcoming, the media and commentators have filled the informational void with prognostications about what is happening and what the investigation might reveal, but this has often sowed confusion. The special counsel’s silence has also given Trump an opportunity to repeatedly claim that the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt,” a phrase he hasusedmanytimes since the investigation first began. During his recent State of the Union address, Trump even warned Democrats against what he called “ridiculous partisan investigations,” which appeared to be a dig at both the Mueller probe and the House Democrats’ investigations of his personal finances.
And it seems that Trump’s strategy is working. Over time, more and more Republicans have come to agree with Trump that the Mueller investigation is unfair.3 But the results of the investigation itself may still change people’s minds. In late 2018, for example, amid a spate of indictments, the percentage of Republicans who thought the investigation was fair ticked up a bit.
In July 2018, Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign. In September, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy as part of a deal to escape an array of other charges, including money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent. And in November, Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his work on a Trump Tower project in Moscow after he had already pleaded guilty to bank fraud and campaign finance violations in August.
If Mueller’s report finds that Trump directed his campaign staff to coordinate with the Russian government, 61 percent of Americans, including 29 percent of Republicans, said they would support Congress’s efforts to impeach the president, according to the Washington Post-Schar School poll. But the Senate Intelligence Committee has said it didn’t uncover direct evidence of a conspiracy between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election, so unless there’s a real bombshell in whatever report comes out of the special counsel’s office, the end of the investigation may not bring sweeping changes of opinion. Instead, we may just see the public dig in their heels and retreat to their partisan corners.
Derek Shan contributed to the data collection process for this story.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In his first prime-time address to the nation, President Trump told Americans on Tuesday night that the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border was a crisis. He did not declare a national emergency to secure funding for his proposed border wall, but he did suggest that he wouldn’t end the partial government shutdown until funding for the wall was approved.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear in their rebuttal that congressional Democrats were not prepared to give Trump what he’s asking for. Congressional leaders from both parties are scheduled to meet with Trump today, but at this stage, it doesn’t seem as though the government will reopen anytime soon.
So, I’m curious, where do we go from here? We seem to be at an impasse. And the stakes are such that neither party can back down. Is that accurate? What would happen if one party compromised? And Is there a way out of the shutdown that doesn’t require either party to compromise?
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Can we start by talking about the television theater of the absurd on Tuesday night?
I thought it was a wildly useless exercise by both the president and the congressional leaders.
sarahf: It certainly was a departure from how previous presidents have used an address from the Oval Office. But it wasn’t clear to me who exactly Trump was trying to reach?
clare.malone: The public nature of it did, as you say, up the stakes for backing down. And maybe that was the point from Trump’s/the White House’s end?
It almost felt like he was just trying to remind everyone in America that there’s a shutdown and that the White House and Congress are having a slap fight.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It felt like Trump was making a kind of Hail Mary. A majority of the public (51 percent) think the president deserves most of the blame for the partial shutdown, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll that was released Tuesday. But some Republican senators are balking at Trump’s strategy. That said, an address from the Oval Office is a card he can play that no one else can. But, yes, it was unlikely to work — presidential addresses don’t generally change minds, as Nathaniel noted. Plus, opinions on immigration are pretty entrenched, and Trump is fairly unpopular.
He talked about rapists and murderers, but from the Oval Office. It was fascinating from a historical perspective, I guess. The usurpation of a formula, that formula being the dignified, seemingly apolitical Oval Office address.
sarahf: There’s this ideafloatingaround that one purpose of last night’s address was to convince Americans that there is a crisis at its southern border. How could we measure if Trump succeeded in convincing Americans that was true?
perry: I tend to be skeptical of the kind of insider, access-based reporting through which we learned that Trump didn’t want to give the speech. Yes, I’m sure Trump said this, but it’s not like someone made him give the address. He is the president.
clare.malone: It was definitely meant to bring the crisis to Americans’ living rooms. But it seems like a move that doesn’t come from a position of strength. It feels more like a last ditch move of negotiation — a high-profile attempt to shift blame.
Not sure that will work …
nrakich: Yeah, the calm demeanor (unusual for Trump) plus the inflammatory words was a weird juxtaposition.
perry: My guess is that Trump will increase the number of Republicans who say we have an immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. That number is 72 percent, according to the latest Morning Consult poll. I could see that becoming 80 percent or 90 percent. But I doubt that he moved anyone else.
sarahf: So there was talk ahead of the address that Trump would use it to declare a national emergency to go around Congress and move ahead on building the wall. But that didn’t happen. Why?
Do we think it might still happen?
clare.malone: That’s an interesting question. It feels like a Rubicon to cross.
nrakich: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says it’s still on the table:
"It's something we're still looking at," says @PressSec of declaring a "national emergency" at the border. "It's something that's certainly still on the table," she says at WH driveway gaggle. But says "best solution" is a deal with Congress to fund border security. pic.twitter.com/5SIPRmMyA5
perry: I really think that’s still on the table. The move is legally questionable. There would be lawsuits. It would be seen as another violation of norms by Trump — inflating an emergency to get done what he can’t get done through Congress. But it’s also the easiest way out of this mess for Trump. Democratic lawmakers are very opposed to the wall, and some Republicans in Congress are not that excited about it either. Trump needs a way out of the shutdown without losing the fight, and declaring an emergency might be the cleanest approach. Yet, it’s also not clean at all, of course.
nrakich: Yeah, Jim Acosta of CNN tweeted that Trump has been seeking advice on it but is hearing that it would be on shaky legal ground.
clare.malone: Once again, the Trump era is a great era for lawyers’ billable hours.
nrakich: Question for you, Perry: Is there any way that this ends with Congress overriding a Trump veto on a funding bill?
It feels like there would be enough Republicans who don’t care about the wall to get to two-thirds of each chamber. We’re already seeing members who are up for re-election in 2020, like Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, backing away from the wall and calling for an end to the shutdown.
perry: I really don’t see that. I don’t think we are in a place yet where Republican senators or House members will buck Trump like that. It’s more likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passes a bill that has, say, $4 billion in border security funding, including $750 million or so for the wall. Maybe that can pass the House and Trump can sign it.
I think McConnell is a potentially big player here. A bipartisan bill passed in the Senate (and it must have 60 votes to pass the Senate, so it would have to be bipartisan) complicates the strategy for both Pelosi and Trump I think.
nrakich: Yeah, it’s almost always the president who “wins” in a government shutdown. Or at least this has been the case in previous shutdowns, but most of those times, presidents won only by making some sort of concession to their congressional agitators.
sarahf: We’ve also written that government shutdowns don’t typically have lasting negative repercussions for the party considered “responsible.” I do wonder, though, whether that could change in this situation, because the fight is over immigration, which is an issue that has become deeply symbolic for both parties — build the wall, don’t build the wall.
To some extent, doesn’t what’s happening now force Democrats to talk about immigration in 2020?
perry: I don’t think anyone will remember this shutdown by the time people are voting next, which is in almost two years, so I’m skeptical that this has much real electoral impact.
nrakich: I’m open to arguments that the political fallout from a record-long shutdown will also last a record-long amount of time, but, yeah, I agree with Perry — not two years.
clare.malone: I think it’s certainly a gauntlet being laid at the beginning of divided government in Washington, as they say.
It’s tone-setting, from both sides.
sarahf: Tell me more, Clare.
clare.malone: I think that neither side wants to lose face right now with their base. Trump obviously reverts to wall talk, but Schumer and Pelosi would be pilloried if they immediately conceded. So they are demonstrating that they now have a foothold of power in government.
It marks an obvious change in tone from the past couple of years. They’re on the offensive a bit more.
perry: Yeah, one unique aspect of this shutdown is that the Democrats now have a “don’t compromise wing,” too. In previous shutdowns, it was the GOP that had to deal with talk radio and Fox News telling them to fight. But now Democrats have groups like Indivisible that will attack Pelosi and Schumer pretty aggressively if they offer wall funding to Trump.
clare.malone: Everyone’s feisty right now.
sarahf: That’s what’s so interesting about this — to some extent, both parties want border security. Democrats were willing to pass $1.3 billion in funding, but because of Trump’s focus on the wall, it has taken on a life of its own that doesn’t leave much room for compromise.
I don’t see how this ends without one of the parties getting egg on their face.
perry: Yeah, if the wall is a monument to Trump or racism or both, as it’s becoming defined on the left, it’s difficult to see a situation where there’s support to give even $1 for it.
sarahf: What are some ways the shutdown impasse could end? Because it has to end relatively soon, right?
perry: I’m not sure it has to end quickly.
I do think that’s one advantage for Trump, in fact. It seems like he thrives on disruption. He doesn’t want to lose, and he views compromise as a sign of weakness. He also thinks federal workers are basically all Democrats, which is wrong. But the fact that he has said that gives you some sense of how Trump views those affected by the shutdown.
But Democrats are the party that tends to be more pro-government, and while I can’t prove this, I suspect that congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with shutdowns in general. So I don’t know how long they can sustain this shutdown posture.
clare.malone: If this shutdown continues, I’m curious about whether the plight of low-wage federal workers will become a real headline and perhaps a motivating facet of public opinion.
That might not happen, but for some people who have low-paying government jobs, this is a devastating few weeks.
nrakich: Apparently there has been a spike in TSA workers (who are about to miss a paycheck) calling in sick.
If there’s a perception that airport security is compromised, or if we start to see serious delays at airports because of understaffing, that could end this thing quick.
perry: How the shutdown could end: 1) Trump folds, and a bill passes with more border security money but no wall funding. 2) Trump declares a national emergency, which he uses for wall funding, and a government funding bill passes without any wall funding. 3) McConnell figures out some kind of compromise bill, it passes the Senate and both Pelosi and Trump accept. I’m assuming Nos. 2 and 3 are more likely than No. 1, but who knows?
clare.malone: Can I make some facile analysis?
I think Trump would want to declare a national emergency more than he’d want McConnell to figure out a compromise. It’s the option with more “boom” to it.
perry: That seems right to me and not facile at all.
clare.malone: Boom. Boom. (Shout-out to Nate Silver’s college band.)
Conservative judges do seem aware of preserving executive powers in real ways.
But I have no legal expertise to say whether an emergency declaration would be a bridge too far, even for the executive power people.
sarahf: To Perry’s point on how this government shutdown might end — I’m not sure how something like option No. 3, in which the parties reach a compromise, pans out. I don’t see a clear path for either party to negotiate, and I’m not sure how this will play out in the court of public opinion.
Up until this point, the American public has largely blamed Trump for the government shutdown, but I do wonder as it drags on how public opinion will shift.
nrakich: More Americans are coming to see the shutdown as a “very serious” problem, according to HuffPost polling.
But I still agree with what was said above: that the shutdown’s effect on public opinion will wear off eventually, as has happened with past shutdowns.
perry: I don’t think public opinion will shift at all. Most people will blame Trump, but that will be Democrats and independents. Republican voters overall will remain committed to the wall. I think the questions are: How long will Republicans in Congress sustain the strategy of shutting down the government over a border wall? And what strategies will they develop to end the shutdown that Trump will accept?
California is huge — it has 39.5 million residents, making it the largest state in the U.S. by population. As a result, it has by far the most House members — 53 in total. Texas, by comparison, is the second-most-populous state and only has 36 representatives. So it’s not necessarily surprising that California is sending more Democrats to Congress than is any other state — 46 Democratic representatives in the new Congress will be from California. Still, since the end of World War II, the House’s majority party has never had this large a share of its membership come from a single state.
The state that had the most members in a party’s caucus in a given year has always, of course, been one of the more populous states, like New York, Pennsylvania or Texas. But those large states hold a bigger share of the caucus when they’re dominated by a single party, like California is now. For instance, in the 1946 election, Texas elected Democrats to all 21 of its House seats, which amounted to 11 percent of all House Democrats; the party was in the minority that year after a GOP wave. And New York, which had the most representatives before California took over, sometimes had more seats than any other state in both parties’ caucuses, as it did in 1948 and 1960. Back when California was less of a single-party state, it occasionally pulled off the same feat, including as recently as 2006, when it led the Democratic caucus and tied Texas for the lead in the GOP caucus.
Nearly 20 percent of the incoming Democratic caucus will hail from California, and using data primarily from Gary Jacobson’s data set on House elections from 1946 to 2014, I found that no state has ever been responsible for a larger percentage of the majority party’s House caucus during the post-World War II period.14
That said, California’s share of the Democratic caucus has been even larger than it is now — 20.7 percent after 2014 and 20.1 percent after 2016. The catch is that Republicans won the majority in both of those elections, which meant that even though California represented a significant share of the Democratic caucus, the state’s representatives had relatively little power.
In the Republican delegation, Texas has held the most seats since 2004 (counting 2006, when it tied with California at 9.4 percent) — and it leads the party’s caucus again this year with 11.5 percent of the GOP’s House seats.
From 1970 to 2002, California also had — or tied for — the largest share of the GOP caucus. As recently as 1992, California had a larger share of the Republican caucus than the Democratic one, even though Democrats held more seats in the state. But the GOP’s position in California has weakened since the early 1990s, a trend often blamed on Proposition 187, which in 1994 sought to, among other things, eliminate public services to illegal immigrants and require state employees to report illegal immigrants to federal authorities. The theory is that this ballot measure turned California’s sizable Hispanic population away from the Republican Party, which campaigned in support of the proposition, and drove those voters into the arms of the Democratic Party. Now the California GOP seems almost like an endangered species, a development punctuated by the complete wipeout of Republican members from Orange County — a traditional home of California conservatism — in the midterm election.
Given the size of California’s congressional delegation, it will be interesting to see what issues California Democrats pursue — especially as relates to President Trump. Several members of the state’s delegation are in line to take over key leadership positions in the House, which would give them more power to take on the president, if they choose. For example, Rep. Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will get to determine whether and how the House is involved in investigations related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he just raised eyebrows by saying that the president could face jail time. Rep. Maxine Waters will head the Financial Services Committee, where she wants to investigate the Trump Organization’s financing. Many commentators have also suggested that Waters could pursue the president’s still-unreleased tax returns. Additionally, one lower-profile Californian slated to be a committee head — Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who is in line to lead the House Administration Committee — may be thrust into the national spotlight. Uncertainty surrounding the outcome in North Carolina’s 9th District could lead to a congressional investigation, which Lofgren’s committee would spearhead. Rep. Mark Takano is seeking to chair the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and if he succeeds, he’d be the fourth potential Democratic committee chair from the state (that we know of).
For Pelosi, the sizable California delegation could boost her bid to become House speaker again — after all, she faces dissent within the Democratic ranks from a faction looking to spoil her efforts to remain head of the party. Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University, told me that in leadership elections, “lawmakers are more likely to vote for candidates who are elected from their state.” So we might expect most California Democrats to back Pelosi. Still, there is a fairly wide ideological range among the returning California Democrats, and most of the incoming freshmen won seats in battleground races. In fact, one freshman, Gil Cisneros, signed a letter opposing Pelosi’s candidacy for House speaker. So if some new members from previously Republican districts break against Pelosi in her bid for speaker, that would eat into her base of home-state support. However, at this stage, only Cisneros has openly demonstrated opposition and most other California representatives have expressedsupport.
California Democrats could be too politically diverse to agree on many legislative priorities, but the group may be able to generate momentum on a few specificissues. “You might see a little more action on climate change and immigration that specifically have to do with where California has really pushed back against the Trump administration,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Given the federal-state conflict that has defined the relationship between the president and California in recent years, it would make sense that California Democrats would push hard on environmental issues, even if a Republican Senate and president mean that those initiatives have little chance of becoming law.