The spiraling investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia presents a political risk to the president, but not the one you might think. Having spent time listening to Trump supporters all over America over the last year, I’ve gotten the message that the president’s voters do not care about scandals, real or perceived. This week’s indictments didn’t put a dent the president’s popularity among the Americans who still approve of his job performance — and in fact, after Tuesday’s terror attack in New York, his approval rating spiked to 39%.
What the Mueller movements do affect in the short term are Trump’s ability to get something — anything — done. The investigation all but ensures that his amateurish administration will be more distracted than ever, and the resulting paralysis on Capitol Hill could shake his base’s faith in his ability to bring change to Washington.
It’s easy enough for Trump and his conservative media allies to blame the ongoing Mueller investigation on the liberal media, which in their view has yet to accept Trump as president.They will continue to deflect charges of collusion with Russia by diverting attention to Hillary Clinton’s ties to a uranium extraction deal with Russia. And those supporters will likely take White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at her word when she blithely declares that the indictment of the former campaign manager “has nothing to do with us.”
Excuses and stall tactics, though, cannot alter the inescapable reality that the investigation is grinding the machinery of Trump’s presidency to a halt. Early promises to repeal Obamacare and repair the country’s dated infrastructure have already been abandoned, leaving tax reform as the only legislation that Trump and the Republican leadership can hope to pass before the year’s end — making it one year of nothing done on Trump’s watch. “But Neil Gorsuch” rings hollow as the lone achievement.
What’s going on in voters’ minds: the substance of the investigation is confusing. And it’s confusing on both sides of the aisle. Is Russia really our enemy? Did they steal any actual votes, or just take advantage of unregulated social networks to influence hearts and minds? And if “following the money” is the key to untangling a political scandal, good luck to any layperson trying to follow Paul Manafort’s endless web of shell accounts, brownstone purchases and expensive rug hobby. But it won’t be confusing to judge in six months whether Trump has done anything at all except disrupt our politics for the sake of chaos.
Mueller’s Dream Team of lawyers hail from the Ivy League and top law firms like Wilmer Hale, and many are former federal prosecutors, Supreme Court clerks and Justice Department veterans. They aren’t snowflakes — they’re the iceberg on the horizon of Trump’s Titanic. Over the next six months, their investigation will continue to gobble up the time and attention of staff and family members who, as close observers have pointed out, remain willfully ignorant of their own ignorance. Instead of turning campaign pledges into policy, these Trump loyalists will spend more and more of their time controlling the damage. And they will struggle with even that, because they are not the best and the brightest.
“The problem is you are put in so many compromised situations when you have a crowd like this,” a veteran of the Nixon White House told me. That a presidential family transparent in their greed previously failed to vet the unsavory actors who lined up for duty poses lingering problems, even without adding an uncontrollable client (the President himself) at the center of the legal storm.
It’s a point that should temper the tax-reform optimism that has taken hold on the Hill. “Nothing’s going to derail what we are doing in Congress” in terms of cutting taxes, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised immediately after the announcement of the indictments.
Ryan will push forward because he has no other option. Midterm elections are referendums on what those in power have managed to get done — and on the popularity of the incumbent Commander in Chief. For now, some Trump supporters believe that his chaos creates leverage and opportunities for negotiation. The next six months will be the test of this embattled theory.