|Editor’s Note: This is a special edition of the Crystal Ball. We’ll be back to our usual Thursday publication next week.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Following the conclusion of the Mueller probe, President Trump being forced from office or the ballot because of legal troubles is even less likely than before.
— Trump remains an overwhelming favorite for renomination by Republicans as their presidential nominee.
— The fate of the Trump administration is in the hands of the voters in November 2020.
Mueller and Trump: The political calculus
There is still so much we do not know about Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. For one thing, none of us — including commentators — have actually seen the report; all we have is a summary from Attorney General William Barr, an appointee of President Trump who quite likely has an interest in presenting the Mueller report’s findings in the best possible light. Given that there has been a bipartisan consensus about releasing the report — the president himself called for it less than a week ago — we hope the full report, or as much of it as legally possible, comes out quickly.
With this caveat in mind — that we’re trying to make judgments about the substance of a document that we haven’t seen — we still think there are a few thoughts worth offering:
1. Trump being forced from office or banned from the ballot because of legal troubles is even less likely than before.
As the Mueller investigation went on, and key figures close to the president found themselves in legal jeopardy (such as Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn), it seemed reasonable to at least hold open the possibility that the Mueller probe could eventually lead to Trump having to resign because of its findings. But with the president now apparently out of legal jeopardy, at least with respect to the Mueller inquiry, the president appears nearly certain to remain in office and to run for reelection.
That’s not to say Trump is guaranteed to be free and clear on any and all legal questions. Let’s not forget all those other investigations of Trump that are ongoing. He’s lived on the legal edge for decades. Something big could happen on this front between now and the election, and Democrats will of course continue to exercise their oversight powers in the House of Representatives to investigate Trump and his family. But our best guess is that any new findings, or new details from the actual Mueller report, would provide political fodder against the president, as opposed to legal fodder.
Even then, previous bombshells from the Mueller probe have not caused sizable changes in the president’s approval rating, which has been very steady over time (his approval is generally in the low-to-mid 40s and disapproval is generally in the low 50s). While there might be a temporary bump, we doubt that the Barr summary will cause some sort of major, enduring change in the president’s approval. We just don’t think there is a significant bloc of Trump disapprovers who disapproved of him mainly based on the Mueller probe and will now consistently approve of him.
Additionally, it will be very surprising if a majority of House Democrats pursue impeachment in the wake of the Mueller report. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi threw cold water on the idea even before the Mueller inquiry concluded, and any impeachment proceeding is deader than dead in the GOP-controlled Senate, barring some massive new bombshell that significantly changes Republican opinion of the president. Speaking of which…
2. Trump remains an overwhelming favorite for renomination by Republicans as their presidential nominee.
We’ve long noted that Trump’s strong approval ratings among Republicans would make it very difficult for any Republican to challenge Trump successfully. One thing that could have potentially hurt Trump’s odds, and emboldened a GOP opponent, could have been a clear conclusion of illegal behavior by Trump about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Whatever the full Mueller report says, that apparently is not a conclusion Mueller reached.
While Trump may have at least one primary challenger — former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who also was Gary Johnson’s running mate on the Libertarian ticket in 2016 — no one would consider Weld a top-tier challenger. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is apparently sniffing around about running for president: Our suspicion is that he is biding his time and waiting to see if Trump’s standing with Republicans weakens over the spring and summer. While anything could happen, we can apparently eliminate one potential cause for Hogan to run — a damaging Mueller finding. Hogan, or another Republican thinking of challenging Trump, will need some sort of plausible path to victory before jumping in, and the Mueller report is a bust on that front. This is good for the president as he seeks a second term: A significant primary challenge can be a sign of weakness even if a president is otherwise re-nominated, as Presidents Ford (1976), Carter (1980), and Bush-41 (1992) discovered.
3. The fate of the Trump administration is in the hands of the voters in November 2020.
As usual, the presidential outcome will depend heavily on factors beyond the full control of anyone, such as the state of the economy. Democrats only control who they nominate and what they emphasize in the campaign. The long campaign can give them the opportunity to size up the contenders and (they hope) choose the one with the best chance against Trump. Or they could pick another George McGovern, Walter Mondale, or Michael Dukakis — weak nominees, all. On policy, Democrats have a wide variety of subjects that could allow them to make a favorable contrast with Trump: climate change, health care, and economic fairness, just to mention three. The message and the messenger will be critical. The Democrats did not really run on the Mueller probe in the 2018 campaign, and for the most part, the 2020 candidates haven’t really been doing that either. Now the Democratic contenders will certainly not do so, though other investigations of Trump may bear fruit and become campaign fodder.
2020 should be a close, competitive, high-turnout election with both sides energized, given what we know today. But lots of factors can tilt the result one way or another. What’s not going to change is Donald Trump. People decided a long time ago what they thought of him, and it has hardened into concrete for the millions who love him as well as the millions who hate him. While we do not know in detail what the full Mueller report will say, the Barr summary, whatever its biases and omissions, suggests what we already thought was the likeliest scenario: The fate of the Trump presidency is on track to be decided at the ballot box, as opposed to a courtroom or impeachment proceeding. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, but like Coca-Cola, it’s the real thing.
P.S. Udall retirement in New Mexico gives GOP a longshot Senate opportunity
In news that was easy to miss on Monday in the midst of Mueller-mania, two-term Sen Tom Udall (D-NM) announced he would be retiring at the end of his term next year. New Mexico has become a Democratic-leaning state in recent years — as we noted in last week’s Crystal Ball on the presidential voting trends in all 50 states — but it is not so Democratic that a Republican could not win it for president, or for Senate, in a strong GOP year. We’re shifting the open Senate race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic, which matches the state’s Electoral College rating. This should still be a hold for Democrats but it may take more time and money than if Udall, a strong incumbent, had decided to run for reelection.