Special Counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation and turned his report over to Attorney General William Barr last Friday. As that news hit inboxes and Twitter feeds, the world of American politics buzzed with internal panic and held its breath in anticipation of Mueller's findings.
Two days later, Barr delivered a four-page summary to Congress. The letter said Mueller found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, but drew no conclusion as to whether the president obstructed justice.
Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both Trump appointees, cleared the president on obstruction of justice, claiming a lack of sufficient evidence.
We shouldn't be comfortable with two political appointees making such a consequential decision, especially when we haven't seen the underlying report.
In fact, one of the few quotes directly from the Mueller report stated that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
Nonetheless, we keep hearing something very different from the president and other Republicans.
"No collusion, No obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!" the president tweeted.
He said more of the same at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan this past Thursday .
"After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead," the president said. "The collusion delusion is over."
The president is right. The collusion delusion is over. And if he wants to win in 2020, he ought to stop trying to campaign on his supposed "exoneration." That kind of campaigning didn't work for the 2018 midterm elections, and it certainly won't work in a general election.
Independent voters in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan - the states that handed Trump the presidency - won't be persuaded by the "no collusion" finding.
Questions remain about other dubious behavior from the president, including his business practices and hush money payments. Democrats will continue their own investigations, keeping that behavior in the new cycle.
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Swing voters also aren't likely to care about the Mueller investigation as much as the president's base or hardcore Democrats. Polling aggregated by FiveThirtyEight shows the public's approval for Mueller has become more polarized since his appointment in May 2017.
Republicans' approval of Mueller trended down over time to below 25 percent in January 2019. Democrats' approval of him trended up to more than 50 percent over the same period.
In addition, Republicans are significantly less likely to view the special counsel's investigation as "fair." Pew Research Center found 54 percent of the country is "somewhat" or "very" confident in the fairness of the investigation, compared to 39 percent of Republicans.
Removed from the Mueller investigation, negative campaigning didn't work for the president in the 2018 midterm election. This was particularly evident in the failure of his immigration and migrant caravan rhetoric to prevent a Democratic takeover in the House of Representatives.
From Oct. 16, 2018, to Election Day, the president sent 45 tweets referencing the "border." Between Oct. 16 and Oct. 31, he sent nine tweets referring to the "caravan" of migrants. For at least a week after the election, he sent no such tweets, illustrating that drumming up fear of the caravan was a blatantly political ploy.
Republicans at large also relied on negative campaigning, mostly in the form of attack ads. A CNN analysis found that by September 2018, nearly 60 percent of Republican ads were negative.
The Democratic net gain of 40 seats in the House illustrates the failure of the ploy and the attacks.
Exit polls did show that 23 percent of voters, 75 percent of whom voted Republican, ranked immigration as the most important issue facing the country. However, far more people (41 percent of voters) ranked health care as the most important, showing how responsive the public can be to campaigning that is centered on policy. Further polling from Pew shows that health care is second only to the economy among Americans' top policy priorities.
Health care is far from a central issue for the president. Despite his recent call for the Republican Party to become "the party of health care," the president's actions on the issue prove that he and his party are the furthest thing from being champions of health care.
This is most evident in his White House's backing of a Texas judge's ruling that would kill the Affordable Care Act. But rather than spend any time trying to explain why he thinks it's a good idea to take away health care from more than 20 million Americans, the president spent much of the last week gloating about "total exoneration," despite the actual facts of the situation.
The president won't and shouldn't be re-elected on "no collusion." The investigation is too partisan and too far removed from policy issues. The president might say such negative messaging works - but he's too delusional if he does.