The Mueller saga goes on – and nothing ever changes
By HENRY OLSEN | The Washington Post | Published: May 3, 2019
Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and his refusal to be grilled by House Judiciary staff on Thursday, are the big news this week, just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has dominated the news for nearly two years. The attorney general’s testimony will likely have the same political impact as prior episodes from this seemingly endless saga: none.
Trump haters will surely disagree, but data on this are pretty clear. President Donald Trump’s job-approval rating has generally hovered within an extremely narrow two-point range over the past year, despite the indictments and congressional testimony of close associates. There are only two significant exceptions to that pattern: The president’s approval rating dropped below 41 percent after Sen. John McCain’s death, and during the government shutdown. Neither event had anything to do with the Mueller report or alleged Trump misdeeds, and his approval rating bounced back to the normal range soon after those events faded from the news.
This contrasts dramatically with prior scandals that involved special or independent counsels and the specter of impeachment. President Richard M. Nixon’s job approval rating was at 67 percent shortly after his 1973 inauguration according to the Gallup poll. It dropped steadily throughout the year, as fact after fact emerged from media reporting on the Watergate scandal. It bottomed out at 27 percent after Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in October 1973, immortalized as the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon never recovered, and his approval stood at a paltry 24 percent right before he resigned.
The Iran-Contra scandal also dramatically affected President Ronald Reagan’s approval rating, which stood at 63 percent in the Gallup poll right before the first revelations were made public. By early December, it had dropped to 47 percent, and by March 1987, it was a mere 43 percent. Reagan avoided impeachment by successfully persuading Americans that he had not known of his underlings’ misdeeds, and his approval rating bounced back to around 50 percent for most of the remainder of his presidency. But it didn’t reach the lofty heights that had been common throughout 1985 and 1986 until his final days in office.
The sex scandal that engulfed President Bill Clinton’s second term also had an impact on his job approval, but in the opposite direction. His job approval stood at 60 percent immediately before the world learned about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It skyrocketed to 69 percent after he denied the claim, and after first lady Hillary Clinton said the allegations were the result of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Subsequent investigations and revelations by independent counsel Ken Starr, which showed Clinton had, at best, intentionally deceived the public over the relationship, did not hurt him. His approval went up to 73 percent as the Republican-controlled House impeached him for obstruction of justice and remained above 66 percent throughout the Senate trial that acquitted him.
Trump’s unchanging job-approval rating shows that the public just does not care about this supposed scandal. Trump haters have hated him since before it came to light, and each new detail simply serves to reinforce their preexisting views. Trump fans, on the other hand, don’t care. Many knew Trump was not a model gentleman when they voted for him. Others may be troubled, but they look at what he’s done in office and the conduct of his opponents and don’t think that what’s been established matters much. In political terms, the entire Mueller-Russia-obstruction affair has been an utter nothingburger.
Trump’s time in office has been analogized to political reality television, but the Mueller investigation is more like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The superhero franchise earns billions of dollars from a large set of loyal fans who line up for every new offering to see their heroes save the world. They know ahead of time that Thor, Ant-Man and Groot will prevail, but they must see it happen again and again and again. The studios rake in the cash, the movies make headlines — and the majority of people who don’t care one bit about Marvel movies go on with their lives.
The Mueller franchise — one could call it the Mueller Collusion Universe — has its own set of loyal fans (Democrats) who hang on every word. Their fanaticism fuels the host of investigations because House Democrats — the studio bosses in this analogy — know they can’t disappoint their voters by canceling the series. The Mueller report provides evidence that can be interpreted as constituting obstruction of justice, and Democrats might be on stronger political ground if their investigations were focused solely on that line of inquiry. But the poll data, thus far, suggests that even then, something new and earth-shattering would have to emerge to significantly harm the president’s approval rating.
This gives the president a huge opportunity if he can ever learn enough self-discipline to seize it. Instead of constantly tweeting about the latest Mueller episode, he could counter-program and offer something new: A positive agenda with bipartisan appeal — consistently promoted in a way that shows Trump is more concerned with the nation’s business than with settling scores — could find favor with people tired of the same-old-same-old. But whom am I kidding? That’s about as likely as the final Star Wars film resurrecting the late Emperor Palpatine.
Until then, the Mueller saga plods on. More investigations, more hearings, more news that whets the appetites of the fan base. And nothing — absolutely nothing — will change.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.