WASHINGTON — There’s one all-consuming question for the Democratic Party now that the Mueller report has been released: What now?
The ball is in Congress’s court. And Democrats are about to face a huge split about whether to pursue an impeachment proceeding with obvious political downsides, or to pass on the opportunity to set a historic precedent and hold the president accountable.
Members of Congress often say that they want to serve in a time of consequence. Well, it doesn’t get more consequential than this.
On the one hand: Democratic 2020 candidates have been reflecting the reality on the ground, which is that voters don’t seem to have much appetite for impeachment at all. That’s reflected in public polling, too, and there’s a clear risk than an impeachment fight would be perceived as Democrats overplaying their hand.
Nancy Pelosi knows all of that.
But congressional leaders also face the opposite question: Without trying to hold the president accountable, what might they be mainstreaming for the future? If they let this go, do they normalize this type of presidential behavior in the future?
If they don’t pursue impeachment, what message are they sending about what a president can get away with?
It’s a political dilemma, but also an ethical one. What’s the right thing to do here, if you’re a Democratic leader? And does the right POLITICAL decision align with the right ETHICAL one when it comes to the long arc of history?
How Trump desensitized America long before the Mueller report
So much of the commentary around the Mueller report has revolved around the parsing of legal arguments about collusion and obstruction.
But beyond the legal weeds, this glaring picture remains: Trump and key members of his team showed themselves in this report to be unbothered by foreign interference in U.S. elections, unconcerned about following the letter or the spirit of the laws about the conduct of a campaign, and unencumbered by the obligation to tell the truth to the American people.
And we’ve already been so desensitized to it, because so much of the evidence Mueller provided was either reported contemporaneously or simply uttered in public.
The report lays out that:
- Trump’s campaign hoped and expected to benefit from information stolen and released by Russian efforts.
- Members of his team were “receptive” to some offers of assistance to the campaign from Russia, and they failed to report any of it to any authorities.
- Trump consistently urged aides to make public statements with which they disagreed or were uncomfortable.
- He repeatedly encouraged people on his team to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails. Leading that effort, Michael Flynn asked two campaign supporters for help, which included trolling the “dark web.”
- He directly encouraged his Attorney General to investigate a political foe (Hillary Clinton).
- He and his associates publicly and privately dangled the possibility of pardons to witnesses in the investigation.
- At least three aides — Sarah Sanders, KT McFarland and Reince Priebus — knowingly disseminated false information to the press.
Any of those items, taken alone, would seem earth-shattering if they were suddenly being revealed by Mueller’s team for the first time.
But we’ve known the broad contours of that behavior for so long, either because it leaked (like Trump ordering Don McGahn to fire Mueller, but backing off when he threatened to resign), or because Trump said it aloud (like his tweets about his displeasure with Jeff Sessions or his professed enthusiasm for Wikileaks)
So, many of the most damning parts of the report were things we already knew. But seeing them all in one place is a reminder of this administration’s crisis of credibility. With so many instances of misleading the press and the public, it’s hard to see how this White House ever gets the benefit of the doubt — on anything — again.
DATA DOWNLOAD: And the number of the day is … at least 11
At least 11.
That’s the number of people in Trump’s orbit who the Mueller report shows did NOT go along with a potentially problematic request from the president.
The Special Counsel stated that: “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out his orders to accede to his requests.”
Who are those “persons”? Here’s the list our White House unit put together:
Don McGahn: Refused to ask Rosenstein to fire Mueller and threatened to resign instead after president had asked him to do “crazy s***”
James Comey: Did not, as Trump asked, publicly push back on the suggestion the president had a connection to Russian election interference
Corey Lewandowski: Did not deliver Trump’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election interference only
Rick Dearborn: Did not deliver Trump’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election interference only
Dan Coats: Refused to say publicly that no link existed between President Trump and Russia after he was asked to in Oval Office 2017 meeting
Rob Porter: Did not reach out to Rachel Brand, to discuss possibility of installing her as AG to remove Sessions and end investigation, because he was “uncomfortable with the task”
Jeff Sessions: Recused himself, despite the president asking him not to, and stayed recused, even when he was later asked by Trump to “unrecuse”
Chris Christie: Did not follow through with the president’s request to call Comey and “tell him that the President still really like[s] him” the day after Flynn resigned
Rod Rosenstein: Refused to do a press conference, at the president’s direction, that it was all his [Rosenstein's] idea to fire Comey, and later told other DOJ officials that he would not participate in putting out a “false story”
James Clapper: Refused to make a public statement refuting allegations in Steele dossier, per an email from Clapper to Comey
KT McFarland: Ultimately did not write an internal letter stating that the president had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
One thing that stands out to us in that list? Most of those people are no longer part of the administration. If they were the guardrails then, who are the guardrails now?
Another thing that stands out: Trump might not be a fan of Reince Priebus and Don McGahn today, but he should be thanking them. The team Priebus put together — and particularly the hiring of McGahn — may have been the only thing that saved Trump from his own worst impulses on obstruction.
2020 VISION: Yes, it looks like Biden is a go for next week.
There’s some fresh buzz today about a Biden announcement coming next week after a new piece in the Atlantic cites a possible Wednesday kickoff.
Our own Mike Memoli has been reporting about a possible announcement next week, too, and we know that Biden has already filmed a video at his childhood home in Scranton.
Our question: What’s the big picture opening message for Biden’s entry into this race?
That he’s the unifier who can convince both sides to recognize each other’s decency again?
The crusader who’ll fight a lofty “battle for the soul of this nation”?
The brawler who once said he would have fought Trump in high school (a statement he later said he regretted.)
A return to normalcy?
And it looks like Biden’s own CAMPAIGN hasn’t figured out that message yet.
The Atlantic reports that the campaign is weighing a more lighthearted announcement on the “Rocky” steps in Philadelphia OR one in Charlottesville to take on Trump on race and division. Those are two radically different opening messages. One’s upbeat and hopeful, and one is solemn and weighty.
That sure seems like a huge decision to be indecisive about less than a week before go time.
On the campaign trail today
Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are in New Hampshire …. Tim Ryan and Kirsten Gillibrand campaign in Iowa… Cory Booker is in Nevada… and Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris are both in South Carolina.
On the campaign trail Saturday
Buttigieg remains in New Hampshire, where Elizabeth Warren will also be campaigning…. Booker and Jay Inslee are in the Nevada… Ryan remains in Iowa, and Sanders and Harris remain in South Carolina.
On the campaign trail Sunday
Kamala Harris heads to Easter service in Columbia, South Carolina.
THE LID: Ch-ch-ch changes?
Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we talked about the likelihood — or not — that the Mueller report will move the needle on public opinion.
ICYMI: This week’s overlooked stories
Mueller! Mueller! Mueller! The big event drowned out pretty much every other news story this week.
But don’t miss these overlooked stories via NBC’s Kyle Stewart, which would have received much more attention in other eras:
The Interior Department has opened an investigation of its new secretary, David Bernhardt.
Trump vetoed a measure to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war
Mark Zuckerberg leveraged Facebook user data to fight rivals and help friends, leaked documents show
Following an NBC News investigation, HUD will now require carbon monoxide detectors in public housing