While Democrats continue to argue over impeachment, Republicans are as determined as ever to shield the president from further scrutiny. As Vox’s Tara Golshan has written, they were prepared to defend the president even before the report came out — and that certainly hasn’t changed much now that it has.
This mindset will be exceedingly apparent during a Senate Judiciary hearing featuring Attorney General Bill Barr on Wednesday. Expect Democrats to press Barr about his conclusions on obstruction of justice, while Republicans will be far more interested in raising questions about bias at the FBI and DOJ during investigations tied to the 2016 election.
“This investigation was about collusion, there’s no collusion, no charges brought against the president on anything else, and I think the American people have had quite enough of it,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when asked about potential impeachment during an event in Kentucky last week.
Of course, the report is nowhere near as clear cut as McConnell frames it. While special counsel Robert Mueller wrote he did not find that the Trump campaign conspired directly with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, he actually noted several points of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian surrogates, and that the investigators could not, in fact, exonerate Trump of obstructing justice.
As one of the most damning lines in the report states: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” (They don’t.)
The open-ended nature of the report’s conclusions about obstruction of justice in particular have spurred House Democrats to consider additional hearings and testimony from Mueller to better understand his findings. But Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham quickly shot down such an idea in the upper chamber.
“I don’t know how clear I can be, Margaret: It’s over for me,” he said during an interview with CBS News’s Margaret Brennan this past weekend. Graham added that he wasn’t worried that Trump pushed White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller while the probe was under way, one of the 10 instances of possible obstruction that the Special Counsel examined. “I don’t care what he said to Don McGahn — it’s what he did. The president never obstructed,” he said. Instead, he’s interested in probing FBI bias against the Trump campaign in 2016.
Graham’s comments firmly underscore the divide between Congressional Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, the Mueller report laid out a blueprint for further investigation. For Republicans, it simply offered a decisive way out.
Republicans have been done with the Mueller report ever since Barr released his summary
Republicans were already over the Mueller report when Attorney General Bill Barr released his four-page summary, concluding that there was no evidence of either collusion or obstruction. While the full report differed significantly from Barr’s summary and specifically cast far more doubt on the question of whether Trump committed obstruction of justice, they haven’t exactly changed their position on the matter.
“He’s done his job and I’m not going to retry the case,” Graham told McClatchy regarding Mueller’s testimony shortly after the full report’s release. “I’m all good. I’m done with the Mueller report,” Graham added during another interview.
Graham’s position is far from an anomaly.
Even lawmakers in vulnerable 2020 swing states — some of whom could benefit from distancing themselves from Trump to reach moderate voters — have shied away from calling for any further action in the wake of Mueller.
Sen. Cory Gardner, who’s widely seen as one of the most threatened Republicans in 2020, argued, “It’s time for Congress to move forward and get to work on behalf of the American people,” noting that he would seek punishment for Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election but stopping short of any critique of Trump. Similarly, a spokesperson for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), another endangered Republican, told Politico that “pursuing the path of endless investigations and impeachment would be a bitterly partisan move that would further divide the country.”
The most aggressive statements pushing back on the president came from Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), and even those didn’t include any particular calls to action. Romney said he was “sickened” by the report’s description of Trump’s behavior, while Collins called the report an “unflattering” portrayal of the president.
Romney indicated, however, that the lack of charges on obstruction of justice was enough to satisfy him. “The business of government can move on,” he said.
The duality of Romney’s response highlights why Republicans have been so reserved about going after Trump: As one Republican strategist tells The Hill, “the majority of Republicans are not going to go after the president on this because he has not been charged with a crime.” Without those charges, Republicans seem to think they have less footing to take on one of their own.
Not only are Republicans done with Mueller, they’re launching their own counteroffensive
In addition to deflecting further investigations of Trump — or perhaps in yet another attempt to do so — Senate Republicans are trying to shift the attention to other investigations of the 2016 campaign and ... Hillary Clinton.
As Graham said in a March press conference, Republicans are interested in getting a better handle on the “other side of the story,” including whether the FBI and the Department of Justice engaged in efforts that hurt the Trump campaign in 2016.
“When it comes to the FISA warrant, the Clinton campaign, the counterintelligence investigation, it’s pretty much been swept under the rug except by a few Republicans in the House. Those days are over,” Graham said.
Senate Finance and Homeland Security Chairs Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson echoed such calls in a letter sent to Attorney General Bill Barr last week, which pressed him to review surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016, a common Republican talking point that Barr himself harped on during a hearing in April.
“Any improper FBI surveillance activities that were conducted before or after the 2016 election must be brought to light and properly addressed,” Grassley and Johnson write in their letter to Barr.
These questions feed into worries Republicans have long voiced about why the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference began and concerns that the use of a FISA warrant to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was rooted in bias.
Conveniently, they also provide some counterprogramming for Republicans to use to divert attention from the ongoing questions about Trump’s potential obstruction of justice that Democrats are sure to emphasize.
As Democrats seek to dial up attention on Trump’s behavior, Republicans are actively trying to redirect it elsewhere.