OPINION — There’s a slippery slope in Washington between oversight and overreach. It’s a path that’s been worn so smooth by politicians in D.C., you could practically pour water on it and charge admission for rides in the summer. Given a yellow light by voters in any given election to proceed cautiously, the winning party will almost always hit the gas to get where they want to go faster and farther than voters ever wanted to go in the first place.
As we learned in the 2018 midterms, voters want congressional oversight of the Trump White House. In fact, they demanded it. Nobody thinks a president should be allowed to run the government alone or without the other two branches of government checking his work.
But congressional overreach is another story altogether, and it’s a place Democrats were in danger of heading with calls for President Donald Trump’s impeachment even before House freshmen moved into their offices in January.
Special counsel Robert Mueller did Democrats a gigantic favor over the weekend by pushing them back toward appropriate oversight, and away from overreach and rallying cries for the president’s impeachment, with his report that he could not establish that anyone from the Trump campaign “knowingly conspired” with the Russian government to swing the presidential elections to Trump in 2016.
The Mueller report, or at least Attorney General William Barr’s four-page letter to Congress about it, was hardly the A+ report card that the president and his allies are claiming it to be. And it definitely was not “a total and complete exoneration.” Quite literally, Barr said the exact opposite on the question of whether the president attempted to obstruct justice. “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” he wrote to Congress.
That’s more than enough of a reason for Democrats to ask to see the full Mueller report and to use it as a basis for continued oversight hearings. But considering the fact that Mueller had nearly two years, more than a dozen full-time lawyers, 40 FBI investigators and 500 witnesses and still could not establish evidence of a conspiracy, it’s hard to believe House Democrats could come up with more than Mueller has before the 2020 elections. And that’s where Democrats can thank Mueller and Barr for saving them from themselves.
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To credibly proceed with an impeachment of the president, Democrats needed more than a smoking gun from Mueller. They needed a screeching fireball, evidence so obvious that Democrats and Republicans alike would have no choice but to consider removing the president from office. Think a sworn confession, a taped money drop, or Trump telling Nancy Pelosi, “You can’t handle the truth!” at their next White House press gaggle.
Anything less, from a purely political perspective, would look like a partisan effort to catch the president in a lie, any lie, and dispatch him from office in the process. Democrats don’t need to look any further than Republican efforts to remove President Bill Clinton from office to see how it ended for them. Neither the impeachment, nor the midterm elections leading up to it, went according to plan.
After a four-year investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr into everything from the defunct Whitewater land deal in Arkansas to personnel decisions in the White House travel office and the suicide of Clinton confidant Vince Foster, Starr finally released his 400-plus page report to Congress in September of 1998. It was two months before the midterm elections, when Republicans expected to expand their majorities in Congress as a rebuke to what they called Clinton’s immorality in office.
On the day Starr released his report, Hill staffers and investigators feverishly refreshed their browsers to read it, only to gasp at the salacious details Starr included about Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom Clinton had been having an affair. Cable news went with wall-to-wall coverage of the report and its contents, including DNA tests from the president and reruns of his earlier denial under oath that he’d had a relationship with Lewinsky.
The White House went into virtual lockdown. Republicans pushed to begin impeachment proceedings as soon as possible, fueled by Starr’s detailed analysis of the grounds for impeaching Clinton on charges of corruption and abuse of power. The capital, in short, was a zoo.
But outside of Washington, Americans were enjoying the strong economy around the country and the relative peace that existed globally. Unlike House Republicans, most voters said they were content with the status quo and had no interest in ousting Clinton from office.
Republicans paid for their overreach in the midterm elections. Instead of gaining seats in the House, they lost five. They fought to a draw in the Senate, but Democrats flipped seats the GOP assumed they would hold in Indiana, North Carolina and, most important for today’s conversation, Alfonse D’Amato’s seat in New York, which Chuck Schumer won for the Democrats.
In exit polls that year, voters broadly approved of Bill Clinton and said the country was headed in the right direction. Four in five said the economy was good or excellent. Sixty-two percent opposed impeachment.
Although the cases against Trump and Clinton are different, the mood around the country is similar in one way — impeachment is not on the minds of most Americans. Voters I talk to are hotly energized for and against the president because of the economy, his fitness for office and a host of other reasons. Russia isn’t one of them. Just 36 percent of voters in a recent CNN poll favor impeaching Trump with the information they have today.
That doesn’t mean that any president conspiring with Russia to win an election would not be important — it means voters aren’t connecting the president to Russia’s interference in the election. And neither was Robert Mueller.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.