DENVER — The Mueller report is no Access Hollywood tape.
While the 2016 bombshell sent Republicans sprinting away from then-candidate Donald Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller’s explosive findings that the president may have committed obstruction of justice is causing a far more muted reaction from Republicans.
Not even the most vulnerable Republicans who have pledged to support Trump have abandoned the president. And there is no sign any will.
“Look, it’s clear there were no merit badges earned at the White House for behavior,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in an interview downtown here. “You have to focus on the heart of this conclusion, which is there is no collusion, no cooperation. That’s where the focus ought to be and how we prepare for the next elections to protect us from Russian intrusion and interference.”
Sure, at-risk GOP lawmakers don’t love the portrayal of Trump’s repeated attempts to kill the probe into pro-Trump Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
But beyond conceding there are some embarrassing details, Republicans don’t feel the need to create any new space between them and the president. The desire to stay in Trump’s good graces and keep his supporters appears to override any interest in using the episode to appeal to swing voters.
Democrats believe Gardner is perhaps the most endangered incumbent senator given Democrats’ sweeping wins in Colorado in 2018, Trump’s loss here in 2016 and Gardner’s own narrow victory in 2014, a GOP wave year. But Gardner is showing no signs of distress with having Trump at the top of the ticket.
In fact, he said he’d be happy to campaign alongside Trump next year as the president seeks to make the Rocky Mountain State a battleground.
“He’s going to campaign here. Every state matters, every voice should be heard. I mean look what happened when Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign,” Gardner said, explaining why supporting Trump is not a difficult call. “This is not a socialist country and that’s what [Democrats] want.”
Gardner’s position as a relatively conservative lawmaker running for reelection in Clinton Country is a unique one, but his view of the Mueller report is not.
Republican operatives working on Senate races say that if House Democrats move to impeach Trump it will activate conservative voters. And if Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets her way and Trump avoids impeachment, then the Mueller report’s effect on 2020 politics will likely be underwhelming, they argue.
Those factors are driving Republicans up for reelection to take the report seriously, but not make waves over it. Vulnerable Republicans in the House are taking a similar tack.
“This is a fair report. And I’m not going to criticize Bob Mueller for the report,” Gardner said, in a striking contrast to Trump’s attacks this week on “the worst and most corrupt political Witch Hunt.”
Fellow battleground Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said people should be “very pissed” that the Russians interfered in the election but had little to say to a local Fox television station in Arizona about the president’s potential obstruction. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has not endorsed Trump for reelection, said on Maine Public Radio that Trump’s orders to aides to end the Mueller report resulted merely in an “unflattering portrayal of the president.”
A spokesman for swing state Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Tillis believes “pursuing the path of endless investigations and impeachment would be a bitterly partisan move that would further divide the country.” And Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she doesn’t view hearings with Mueller as necessary and only barely conceded the report paints a “brash” portrayal of the president.
“We all know how the president is,” she told reporters in the Capitol on Monday.
In 2016, it’s not clear Republicans who bailed from Trump’s campaign won any edge, and some strategists believe it cost them by deflating the GOP base. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Nevada candidate Joe Heck both lost close races after abandoning Trump.
This time around, the harshest words about Mueller’s conclusions have come from newly-elected Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was “sickened” by the report’s details. But he has the advantage of never having to run alongside Trump. Those who do could face Trump’s wrath in a primary, leaving little political upside for Republicans to focus on Mueller as they fight to keep their seats.
“Republicans should put the Mueller report behind them and move forward. They should get to work on tightening cybersecurity and election protections so they have real accomplishments to point to on protecting elections from outside interference,” said Dan Eberhart, a top GOP donor.
That’s exactly what Gardner is pledging to do — alongside calls to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terror and increase sanctions.
“What we have to move onto is to make sure we are protecting this country’s elections. We have a country (Russia) that is hell bent on the demise of the West. And we can’t stand for that,” Gardner said. “Some are going to push for impeachment and do everything they can to strike that revenge; we need to protect people in this country.”
The subtext to many of Gardner’s comments is that the president has his own view, and he has his. Even as he refuses to break with Trump over the Mueller report, Gardner said he will occasionally be at odds with the administration; he helped derail Herman Cain’s appointment to the Federal Reserve and has pushed for more muscular stances toward Russia and North Korea.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also sought to put the Mueller report behind him.
“I think the American people would like to move on from this,” the GOP leader said in Kentucky on Monday. “They’ve learned quite enough about it.”
In the House, the GOP has been even more reluctant to break ranks with Trump. Mueller’s findings hadn’t been publicly released yet before most House Republicans were gleefully declaring victory and telling Democrats that it was time to move on.
Some vulnerable House Republicans — who are back home in their districts for the Easter recess and far away from prying reporters in the Capitol — have largely avoided the post-Mueller media spotlight. Several members said they were too busy for an interview or directed POLITICO to boilerplate statements that were put out right after the report’s release.
"The less that Republicans say about the Mueller report the better it is for their re-election chances,” said Alex Conant, a former adviser for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
But other endangered Republicans have forcefully defended the president, emphasizing that Mueller determined there was no collusion with Russia.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who represents Long Island, said that Trump isn’t perfect, but argued that the president didn’t obstruct justice because he didn’t actually end up firing Mueller.
“Is it ideal? Donald Trump is not a saint. Nobody ever said he is,” King said in a telephone interview. “But… he never did stop the investigation.”
And centrist Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) predicted that if Democrats end up impeaching Trump, it could galvanize the GOP heading into 2020. “It’s sort of Machiavellian,” Davis said, “but it could help Republicans and the president.”
GOP senators had warned the president not to stop Mueller’s investigation, and the fact that he ultimately didn’t may have buoyed Trump from further criticism from the likes of Collins and Gardner, who are likely to need split-ticket voters to put them over the top next year.
But like the rest of the 2020 class of GOP senators, Gardner, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, is going to shy away from blunt rhetorical barrages against Trump. A full-frontal attack over Mueller’s findings would upset what Gardner backers say is a delicate balance.
“Among people that are strong Trump supporters, they know that Cory is beneficial to the president,” said conservative state Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Colo.). And “he’s capable of inviting other people into the party, people that might be from the center of the political spectrum, in a really meaningful way.”
Melanie Zanona reported from Washington. James Arkin and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report from Washington.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine