Both sides aim to keep arguing over Mueller probe
WASHINGTON (AP) - "It's over," President Donald Trump declared after former special counsel Robert Mueller ended hours of testimony about his two-year investigation into Russian election interference. But don't expect Trump or the Democrats looking to replace him in 2020 to just move on.
Mueller's marathon Capitol Hill appearance on Wednesday offered few new insights but no shortage of political fodder for both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, where many would rather keep the argument going than mark its end. Both parties will keep waving the special counsel's findings—and talking about the possibility of impeachment—to motivate core supporters in the coming presidential campaign.
That may be especially true for Trump, whose political strategy relies on conflict, with the Russia investigation remaining a potent adversary.
While the Mueller probe loomed as a pressing political problem for Trump, he also saw that it could be turned into an asset. From the start, he's peppered his campaign rallies with complaints about the swirling investigation getting in the way of his agenda. And Trump has no plans to let go of the now-concluded Mueller inquiry as his focus turns toward reelection, standing ready to include it in the litany of perceived slights and political buzzwords that punctuate his raucous rallies and acerbic tweets.
"It's always going to be high on the set list," former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the Mueller probe.
Trump himself brought up Mueller unprompted to a roomful of donors in West Virginia on Wednesday night, hours after Mueller concluded his testimony. Trump asserted that Mueller's congressional testimony was a miserable effort by Democrats to discredit him, West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael told the AP. The president also called the hearings a dud for anyone who thought new, more damaging information would emerge, Carmichael said.
On Twitter on Thursday morning, Trump quoted triumphantly from the words of "Fox & Friends" hosts who bashed Mueller and expressed support for his administration.
It will be that way for Democratic presidential candidates, too, as they seek to win over highly motivated primary voters who believe Mueller's report was a roadmap for impeachment. Never mind that the party's leadership in Washington would rather pivot toward the pocket-book issues that affect voters directly.
Operatives in both parties see Mueller as a potent—and lasting—rallying cry for their respective political cores, in a political environment where turning out reliable supporters is viewed as more efficient than winning over skeptics in the political center.
"Both sides are going to use it," said Republican consultant David Kochel. Trump, in particular, has excelled at revving up base supporters with harsh rhetoric about straw men, from federal judges to foreign leaders, he noted. "It's all about that base."
That dynamic was on display for Democrats this week in Detroit, where the NAACP held its annual conference and approved a resolution calling on the House to begin impeachment proceedings. While Mueller was testifying in Washington, several 2020 contenders spoke to the organization and reiterated their calls for impeachment.
Elizabeth Warren, one of the most vocal candidates pressing for impeachment proceedings, acknowledged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reservations.
"I understand that there are people who for political reasons say it's not where we want to be," the Massachusetts senator said. "But in my view, some things are above politics. And one of them is our constitutional responsibilities to do what is right, and the responsibility of the Congress of the United States of America when a president breaks the law is to bring impeachment charges against that president."
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, struck a more centrist tone, saying the best resolution to the nation's politics is to defeat Trump in next year's election. While he touted the importance of impeachment proceedings, he stopped short of pushing Democrats to start them.
"There's more than enough in that report to interpret it as an impeachment referral," he told reporters. "I believe that an impeachment inquiry would bring more facts to light. I also believe that the Republican Senate will not act. And so I'm focusing on the best thing I can do about the Trump presidency, which is to defeat him in November 2020."
Former Vice President Joe Biden is the most prominent Democratic White House hopeful who hasn't taken a firm stand on the issue of impeachment, a position that could be increasingly untenable as the primary unfolds.
Even as White House officials proclaim they want to move on, they are keeping up their criticism of Mueller's team and pushing to "investigate the investigators," seeing long-term gain in prolonging the saga. "It really is time to move on," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday, moments before demanding an investigation of Mueller's team. "We need to know who was in charge of the Mueller investigation," she said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Steven Sloan in Washington, Errin Whack in Detroit and Anthony Izaguirre in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.