Voters around the country process the end of Mueller investigation
Brandon Wolf is ready to move on.
When former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel in May 2017, Wolf, a 30-year-old graduate of the University of Oregon who lives in Orlando, was supportive of the probe and hoped that the legal system was strong enough that it could “push back even against a sitting president.”
Wolf survived the 2016 shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded, a tragedy that he said changed his political involvement from “engaged but not active” to “active and passionate.”
Now, however, with Mueller’s probe finished and Washington debating the next steps, Wolf is ready for lawmakers to focus on things he believes impact the day-to-day lives of Americans more directly.
“I’m like many Americans in that the ultimate result of the report doesn’t affect me nearly as much as the crippling cost of healthcare or paying back student loans,” said Wolf. “I’d love to see my elected officials and the Democratic Party really turn their focus to a policy frame of mind and talk about how we’re going to move the country forward.”
In interviews with more than 50 Democrats, independents and Republicans in five states across the country this week, one clear theme emerged: There is near unanimous exhaustion with the Russia investigation and a strong desire for lawmakers to get back to work on bread-and-butter issues.
While nearly every voter CNN talked to said they want the full Mueller report to be released, among the most striking conclusions was how little the probe changed their opinion of Trump — a fact borne out by a recent CNN poll that found only 13% of voters said Mueller’s findings would sway their 2020 vote.
Of those, 7% said they are now more apt to back the President, while 6% said they are now less likely to do so. A combined 86% say that they had already figured out whether they would vote for or against Trump, or that the investigation won’t matter even though they are undecided now.
These dynamics present problems for Democrats hellbent on ousting Trump from office. Wolf, like other Democrats who spoke to CNN, cares about what is in the Mueller report and supported the investigation. But Wolf said that he “breathed a sigh of relief” when he learned the probe was over and wasn’t going to “hang over 2020 in the way I thought it was going to.”
Other Democrats suggested that their faith in institutional powers — like the Justice Department and publicly respected figures like Mueller — had again failed to deliver them from what they viewed as an illegitimate presidency.
“I care about corruption and conspiracy and collusion and nepotism and all that, but I think that the duration of this whole process has led me to feel skeptical and less hopeful,” said Evan Amo, a 30-year-old Presbyterian pastor who just recently moved to Denver and did not support Trump in 2016. “I think a lot of people are just feeling fatigued by the whole investigation process.”
Democrats and liberals now have to confront a difficult truth: The inquiry that consumed so much of Washington for the better part of two years ended, and which many Democrats hoped would bring down the President, has left him and his supporters feeling vindicated and vengeful.
For Amo, a self-described liberal independent, the outcome has caused him to examine his own motivations. “I would prefer that Trump is not our president, but I just don’t think it is constructive to wish for this investigation to prove his guilt just because we despise him or to have a victory over Republicans,” he said. “That’s the tension that I have: What are my motives? Do I want a loss for Trump and a win for my party, or do I want justice for our Democracy as whole?”
Many voters CNN interviewed have political priorities more pressing than Russia.
“Gun control and gun law reform,” Rebecca Arthur, a mother of one from Westminster, Colorado, said when asked about issues she will vote on in 2020. “Because I have a child coming up through school and I don’t want her to get mowed down in her classroom.”
Where do Democrats go from here?
For Democrats, there has been a persistent disconnect between the focus being paid to ongoing Russia investigations on Capitol Hill and on cable television, and what voters have said they care about when they talk to elected officials.
At town hall meetings across the country a year ago, as Democrats looked to take back some semblance of control in Washington, questions focused on pocket book issues — health care, retirement and jobs. Even in races with overtones of Russia — like in Democrat Harley Rouda’s eventually successful bid to oust California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher a man known as “Putin’s favorite Congressman” unlikely to hinge on Russia — the Mueller probe was a secondary concern.
That has continued into the early stages of the 2020 presidential race. The topic of Russia or the Mueller investigation is rarely among the questions voters tend to ask the more than a dozen Democrats running for president.
“We’re all focusing on making sure we’re talking about actual issues that are actually facing the everyday American,” said Chris Walton, the chairman of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party. “I’ve never heard when I’m knocking on doors anybody actually bring up Mueller.”
He added: “We got bigger issues to fry, and all of them culminate in November of 2020.”
This gap was readily apparent as the Littleton Running and Hiking Club gathered around lacquered tables at the Coal Mine Ave Brewing this week in the suburb south of Denver. After a run in the unseasonably warm March weather with around a dozen friends, group founder Ross Villeneuve, his girlfriend Anne Marie Cernera and Ross’ father, Wayne — all supporters of Democrats — lamented that more had not been found on Trump.
“It makes me more excited” for 2020, said Ross Villeneuve over a pint of beer. “I think people will be a little more charged because we are the ones who can change it now, we are the next fight. Where Congress isn’t really doing anything or didn’t have any plans to do anything, we will (oust Trump) the old-fashioned way.”
Cernera didn’t entirely agree. She “whole-heartedly” dreads 2020, she said, because she believes Trump “actually has a shot again,” a fact she described as “bat s–t crazy.”
What they do agree on, however, is that there are more pressing issues than Russia in 2020.
“In a vacuum, not at all,” Cernera said when asked how often she would like her eventual 2020 nominee to talk about Russia, “because I think the people are convinced already in either direction. I don’t think facts work, this is such an emotional debate, not a factual debate.”
Brett Butler, a 31-year-old Democrat and program manager at an education non-profit in suburban Denver, worries that if Democrats spend too much time on Mueller, it could play into Trump’s hands. “It might actually help him if we keep focusing on the investigation,” said Butler. “The people don’t care.”
That’s a lesson that some of the newest members of the House learned last year, when Democrats swept into the majority in the legislative body by focusing on other issues, a direct acknowledgment that Russia was not a motivating issue.
Rep. Jason Crow, a military veteran who successfully ousted a Republican lawmaker from a suburban Denver district in 2018, is one of those young lawmakers.
“The American people and the folks in my district, they don’t want more drama in their politics and with the leaders in Washington than they already have in their everyday lives,” Crow said. “People are dealing with a lot. And there is a tiredness around the constant fighting, the divisiveness.”
While Crow said Democrats on the Hill should continue to demand the report and provide oversight, his advice to Democrats like himself who are running in 2020 is “continue to focus on those other issues.”
Trust in Mueller, antipathy for Trump, frustration with Washington
Those voters — both Democrats and Republicans — with a glaring issue looming around them were almost universally apathetic towards Mueller’s findings.
In McAllen, Texas, a city of over 140,000 people near the mouth of the Rio Grande, that issue is immigration along the US-Mexico border. While many in Washington, including Trump, talk about the issue regularly, for the men and women in this small Texas city, immigration and a possible border wall shows up in their everyday lives, while the Mueller probe is more ephemeral.
George Rice, a 36-year-old libertarian and small business owner, didn’t hide his distaste for the Mueller probe at a local Republican Party event this week — “It honestly came off as a witch hunt,” he said. But the 6’4″ veteran added that it’s not anywhere near one of the most important issues in 2020.
“I think we’re getting off (from important topics) because we’re concentrating on DC politics like the Mueller report,” he said. “I don’t think immigration is solved with a wall, it’s solved by policy, which we don’t have. And that’s why it’s been getting worse and worse and worse.”
He found an unlikely ally in Rodd Lewis, a 67-year-old local Democrat who has lived in McAllen for 40 years. Sitting in his office filled with local campaign posters, he grew emotional when discussing how he sees the immigration situation in the Rio Grande Valley.
“I’m the grandchild of immigrants,” he said. “I’ve been at the shelter four times this weekend because 900 people arrived at the facility that handles 110. There was no food. There was no water for bathing.”
The Mueller report is important to him, he said, but it pales in comparison to the omnipresent immigration issue that he sees around him every day.
“I walk my dog there every day and see those kids out in the front yard being bussed in and out. How can I live with that,” he said. “My grandparents fled the Nazis to survive.”
Even as most people around them think it is time to move on from Mueller, there are some Democrats who want their officials in Washington to keep digging, in part, to vindicate what they believe was a stifled Mueller probe.
“I was hoping it would get him impeached,” Jermaine Lewis said bluntly as he worked the room at Kuttin’ Edges, a barber shop he co-owns in Norfolk, Virginia.
“We definitely need to continue to push that it gets disclosed because if it was important enough to spend 25 million dollars on, I don’t think it should just be swept under the rug now,” he said at his shop that is squeezed between a naval base and military housing in Virginia’s tidewater region.
Lewis, while unique, was not alone.
Elaine Arnoldy, a 64-year-old native of the Denver area, was still perturbed as she browsed the gold nuggets, moon rocks and other exhibits as the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum in Golden, Colorado.
“It’s absolutely critical that we get all the information and that Congress has a chance to do their own investigation and to get down to the truth of what’s going on,” Arnoldy said. “I was disappointed and concerned not so much about the report, but that the information is not being given and that we’re not getting the Mueller report. We’re getting the Barr version. And I think that could be very different.”
The same was true for Karen Clay, the president of the Democratic Disability Caucus of Florida, who also works as a caretaker for her disabled son.
“I just feel crushed. I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said emotionally. “It’s like, there’s got to be more. … We had inflated Mueller into this giant balloon and now it’s like all the air has come out and I don’t know how I feel. I just, I just feel deflated and defeated.”
Just as those voters looking for their candidates to focus on other issues create an issue for Democrats, so too do people like Lewis, Arnoldy and Clay, who have been following the Mueller probe from the outset and are not satisfied with result.
If those seeking their party’s nomination move past the issue, they could lose these voters. And if they focus too closely, they risk losing their counterparts.
“If we can’t count on the integrity of our democracy, then everything else is secondary,” said Arnoldy. “This is the No. 1 issue.”
In a symbol of a divided county, just as some Democrats see investigations into Trump as something that must continue, many Republicans see them as nothing more than a waste of time.
Terry Dittrich, the Republican chairman in Waukesha County — a massive source of Republican votes in southeastern Wisconsin — said Republicans in his county see the Mueller probe as “a witch hunt” but that “people would like to move on” and “we don’t need to do any more investigating.”
“Why do people call it the Swamp? Well this is a good example. It looked very vindictive. It looked very partisan. And it looked like there was an aimless investigation,” he said. “The first comment people make to me is, how many millions did we spend? They’re very upset about the spending side of this.”
The same sentiment was felt by voters in Virginia, said Bob Brown, chairman of the GOP Party of Norfolk.
Brown, 63, described the mood of local Republican voters as “exuberant,” denying that the Russia investigation ever had any merit.
“It’s a nothing burger,” he said. “I mean, it’s time to move on and govern the country.”
Where’s the ring?
Robert and Claire Cram of Nashua, New Hampshire, are a split household: he voted for Trump, and she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sipping rum and vodka drinks midday at Milano’s Sports Bar there was one thing they both agreed on: Enough with news about Russia.
“The worst thing I want to hear is anything about Russia,” said Claire, chopping her hands in frustration. “I don’t care. I don’t care if Russia was involved with whatever. I’m done with that. I don’t want to hear another thing about Russia.”
Robert, a retired union mechanic agrees and stands by his 2016 vote, primarily because his pension is tied closely to the stock market.
Sporting a backward New England Patriots hat, Robert and his wife sat at the bar playing Keno. They voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, in an election that now felt like eons ago.
“I just feel like we’re going backward. Let’s go forward,” said Claire. “I mean, there should be some friendship with Russia. This is 2019. We’re not in the ’50s. We should be able to negotiate with Russia.”
Claire then paused and her Boston fandom kicked in.
“And I think,” she said with a smile, “Bob Kraft should have his ring back.”