Magazine | April 22, 2019, Issue

Trump after Mueller

President Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, February 11, 2019. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)
The presidency is going to look pretty familiar

Now that Attorney General Bill Barr has released his summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump, many people in the White House think that new opportunities are beckoning.

Barr wrote that Mueller had not found evidence to establish that the Trump campaign had illegally cooperated with Russian hacking or disinformation campaigns. He announced, as well, that Mueller had reached no conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed justice — but Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, concluded that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Trump said he had gotten “a complete and total exoneration.”

Politico ran two stories reporting that Trump plans an “ambitious” and “aggressive” agenda now that the Russia scandal is over. Time magazine published a cover story on “the Trump Reboot.” “White House officials are hungry to press ahead,” it noted. “They want to use the momentum to push Trump’s policy agenda forward, with legislative initiatives on health care, trade and infrastructure, according to two West Wing aides.”

In Fortune, Michael Tracey wrote of the president’s Russia accusers, “Not only have they wasted incalculable political energy obsessing about what has proven to be a deranged fantasy, they have dramatically emboldened Trump and given him a compelling, triumphant narrative for re-election.” Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “an enormous political weight” had been lifted from Trump.

No doubt members of the administration are relieved that their legal bills will stop piling up. The expectation that the end of the Mueller probe could be a turning point for the administration might even prove true. But expectations about Trump have been dashed before, and there are reasons for thinking that the administration’s fundamental political position remains roughly what it has been for the last year.

The theory that everything has changed applies the normal rules of presidential scandal to Trump. When a president faces an investigation into the possibility of serious misconduct, it often reduces his popularity and hinders his legislative agenda. The inquiry into whether high officials in the George W. Bush administration had outed an intelligence agent in an act of political hardball seemed to drag its polling down, and it certainly had that effect on morale inside the White House. It consumed energy that could otherwise have gone into advancing the administration’s political goals.

The scandals that arose from President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998 did not harm his job-performance ratings; the prospect of his removal made Americans more likely to say they approved of his record, if not his character. It nonetheless made cooperation with a Republican Congress nearly impossible: Clinton had to hug his party’s left to retain its loyalty, while Republican voters became fixated on ousting him.

Trump’s situation has been very different. His polling has been much more stable than that of his predecessors. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, his approval rating has ranged between 37 and 44 percent over the past two years. The Russia investigation does not appear to have had a large effect on his standing. The firing of James Comey in May 2017, which led to Mueller’s appointment, did seem to cause a dip in the polls. Trump’s worst numbers, however, came not during any turn in the Russia controversy but after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.

In the nine days following Barr’s letter about the investigation, the poll average has ticked up by half a point. Evidently the people who love him and the people who hate him still feel the same. Perhaps the release of Mueller’s actual report will yet melt this solid division of opinion. If Barr’s letter turns out to have misrepresented the report, the polls could turn against Trump. Or perhaps the report will, as some of Trump’s allies hope, make voters angrier about a “witch hunt” against the president; although it seems at least as likely to persuade voters who were not already his strong supporters to doubt that characterization of the investigation. If the Russia investigation has been an anchor on Trump’s popular support, however, the polling does not show it.

The Mueller investigation does not appear to have obstructed Trump’s policy agenda, either. It didn’t stop the administration from taking any executive action it favored, whether moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or liberalizing health regulations. It didn’t block him from achieving legislative successes, either.

President Trump hasn’t really had much of a legislative agenda. He deferred to congressional Republicans on repealing Obamacare and reforming the tax code; they failed in the first project and succeeded in the second, in neither case with Russia or Mueller playing any role. The administration supported a bipartisan deal on modest changes to federal criminal-justice policy rather than playing a leading role, which may have helped that deal get enacted. Otherwise, it has not really asked for much from Congress, certainly not in a sustained way.

It came out with an outline of its goals on infrastructure but made no serious push for it when Republicans held Congress; it has made little effort to bridge the large gap between that outline and the Democrats’ preferences.

The recent discussion of the administration’s ambitious agenda is mostly talk. The White House does not pretend to have a health-care plan. It wants Republican senators to come up with one and says a vote can wait until 2021. The president’s legislative agenda on trade boils down to getting his slightly revised version of NAFTA through Congress. It’s not an especially sweeping measure, and its prospects are uncertain. It’s opposed by key unions that the administration was counting on to be part of its coalition. The infrastructure plan remains stuck at the outline level.

Compared with his recent predecessors, Trump has been either less interested in doing the things it takes to push an agenda through Congress or less able to do them. Before Trump, it was standard for the White House to decide on its most important goal, either propose legislation on its own or work with congressional allies to do so, and then deal and cajole until some of its priorities became law. Among this presidency’s many breaks with precedent is that this kind of policymaking has never happened during it. That difference has nothing to do with any Russian collusion or “deep state” plotting against Trump. It’s a function of his attributes. Barr’s letter has done and can do nothing to change those attributes and so is unlikely to alter the legislative course of the presidency.

The end of the Mueller investigation could even be unhelpful to Trump in one respect, as it may free Democrats to drop the Russia-collusion story in favor of more politically promising lines of attack. Then again, the Democrats might be unable to help themselves from going too far in their hostility to the president. During the Mueller investigation, they repeatedly blunted the effect of developments that would have stung any previous president — such as the sentencing of his campaign manager to a lengthy prison term — by promising even more shocking stories to come, which never did.

The campaign’s relationship with Russia offered reasons for investigation, albeit not for obsession. Russia intervened in the election against Hillary Clinton, and Trump kept denying that fact. Donald Trump Jr. showed interest in getting Russian help in the campaign, and the administration’s initial response to publicity about that fact was, on the most charitable construction, a series of misstatements. For an American president, Trump has spoken in unusually positive terms about Vladimir Putin and made excuses for his misdeeds. This pattern of facts may not have justified all of the investigative decisions of the FBI and the Justice Department, but it showed them not to be baseless, either.

Some of Trump’s foes saw more in this pattern: They inferred from it a strong chance, and some of them a certainty, that Trump was guilty of grave crimes, even treason, and was lying to cover for it. There were always other possible explanations. Trump has a long record of expressing admiration for dictators’ strength. He may well have resented a story about Russian help that detracted from the role of his genius and attractiveness in winning the 2016 election. He lies all the time, even in small and easily verifiable matters.

The investigation, to an extent, grew out of Trump’s character flaws. It is his character, and not Russia or health care or immigration or the economy, that has been and remains the top political issue in America. That character perdures, as do Americans’ divergent opinions about it.

This article appears as “The Post-Mueller Presidency” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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