Public Opinion Has Hardened on Trump-Russia. Dems Should Be Unafraid to Act.

No one knows yet what the full Mueller will say, or when it will be released. It could provide the exoneration that Trump and his allies are claiming. That seems unlikely, but it is possible. It could be damning, albeit with caveats as to why prosecutors chose not to pursue any further indictments. Most likely, it will be a mixed bag, discomfiting many Republicans and disappointing many Democrats.

That said, much of the discussion around the Trump Russia issue has been political in terms of its impact on the 2020 election. Obviously, the Trump campaign felt a gust wind at their sails as a result of the Barr letter purporting to clear the president. In characteristic Trump fashion, the president found unwarranted confidence to make another assault on the Affordable Care Act. But there are many on the left who were secretly or not-so-secretly relieved when the Barr letter gave the Trump good news on the investigation—not just the left-libertarian Russia skeptics like Glenn Greenwald, but also many more institutional players who feel that the focus on the scandal detracts from Democratic messaging on healthcare, the economy, and other issues. Further, many establishment Democrats are skittish about the political impact of investigations and impeachment based on a combination of soft polling and past experience from the Bill Clinton administration.

Amazingly, however, given the omnipresence of news around the Russia collusion scandal, this week’s news hasn’t done much to move the president’s polling numbers either way. Trump’s approval rating remains locked at the same 42 percent average it has been at for most of the last two years; the Barr letter did nothing to change that. That’s in part because most Republicans believed Trump and Fox News that the investigation was a witch hunt to begin with—or they just didn’t care in any case—and a large number of voters still don’t believe Trump is out of the woods on Russia, much less on the other serious investigations swirling around him:

According to a new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, 29 percent of Americans say they believe Trump has been cleared of wrongdoing, based on what they have heard about Mueller’s findings, while 40 percent say they do not believe he has been cleared.

But a third of Americans — 31 percent — say they’re not sure if Trump has been cleared. That includes nearly half of independents (45 percent) and about a quarter of both Democrats (27 percent) and Republicans (25 percent.)

Partisanship is so fixed among politically engaged Americans that even the biggest news of the day barely moves the needle. If the Barr letter was a whitewash on a damning report just to win a few weeks of news cycles, it doesn’t appear to have done the president much good—insofar as it may have led him to overreach on healthcare, it may actually have hurt him. On the flip side, it’s not entirely clear that a disturbing report that changes the Barr narrative will do much to damage the president, either. The same dynamic would apply to a more favorable full report, as well.

This is more than a little disturbing for a host of reasons that will be obvious to good government advocates and those who decry increasing partisanship. But there’s a consequence of this new reality. While there is little negative consequence for bad actors who lie and bluster, there is also very little downside to doing the right thing on principle.

Because public opinion has so deeply hardened, there is no reason for Democrats to refrain from pursuing all the investigatory leads that can to get to the truth. While Robert Mueller had more tools at his disposal than Congressional Democrats will ever have, he also faced certain institutional constraints and guidelines that House investigations do not face.

Principle, not politics, should guide these decisions.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.