The Mueller report has prompted waves of analysis but no one seems to have thought through how it might influence the 2020 Republican primary.
To start with, the Mueller report would have been the death of any other candidate, even a sitting president. A fair thumbnail conclusion from the report is that, if the president did not violate any laws, it is only because he was either too stupid to understand what he was doing or too incompetent to carry it out.
Time and again, the special counsel’s report makes Trump look ridiculous and out-of-the-loop. To take one incident more reminiscent of a middle-school romance than running the world’s most powerful government, President Trump ask Corey Lewandowski, of all people, to pass a note to Attorney General Jeff Sessions directing him to have the Mueller investigation restricted to preventing future election interference. Lewandowski, who Trump values for his loyalty if not his competence, managed to muff the job. Trump reminded him about the note a month later but then forgot about it and the note was never delivered.
In another episode, Trump ordered the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to have Mueller fired. But he then sort of forgot about that, too, after a while. This is part of a pattern. Trump is prone to ordering people to do very serious, important things and then not following through or even entirely forgetting he’s given the order. Trump famously decided to formally withdraw from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and ordered his aides to draw up the paperwork for his immediate signature. As word spread of this decision, serious people in the administration panicked, recognizing what this would do both to the U.S. economy and to America’s defense interests in the Pacific. The problem was solved by the simple expedient of removing the paperwork from Trump’s desk and the president never raised the topic again. There’s a similar story about withdrawing from NAFTA.
To be sure, the presidency is a stressful job and there are, no doubt, a lot of things to keep track of. But you would think that withdrawing from NAFTA is the kind of thing you would remember.
As embarrassing as all this is, it’s not going to provide much added benefit to Bill Weld—or even the John Kasichs and Larry Hogans of the world. Republicans who were already disaffected by Trump have probably had their disaffection buttressed by the report. And there will surely be some converts from the ranks of marginal Trump supporters.
But to the extent that the Mueller report helps a candidate such as Weld, it is additive, not transformative.
The bigger problem for Trump is if he draws a challenger from his other flank. Because if you’re a person who loves Trump’s nativism and nationalism, then the humiliating picture of incompetency and chaos from the Mueller report is a very new, and very big, development.
Imagine, for example, Ann Coulter jumping into the Republican primary. Her message would be that Donald Trump lied to his base and, to make matters worse, is a bumbling incompetent who isn’t capable of delivering on his promises. Where Trump’s slogan is ‘Make America Great Again” Coulter’s slogan would be “Where’s Our Wall.” Which, you have to admit, would look great on a hat. #WOW
I don’t know how Coulter would handle retail politics, but on television and in head-to-head debates, she’d be a force of nature. Ann Coulter is a lot of things and among them are intelligent, articulate, merciless, and shameless. On top of all that, if she entered the race, she’d instantly neuter Trump’s FOX/talk radio advantage. Just imagine Coulter being interviewed on Hannity.
If Ann Coulter were to enter the race, it would become instantly competitive, especially with Weld already in the mix. All the complaints from his “left” (the traditional left/right dichotomy doesn’t really work here, but you know what I mean) about Trump’s unfitness are already baked in.
But complaints from his right about his competency are not. Someone who’s more Trumpy than Trump—but also more intelligent and disciplined and without the ongoing personal train wreck could peel off a big chunk of his support.
At the very least, Trump would know he had been in a fight.
The Mueller report was always unlikely to move the Republican pro-Trump/anti-Trump dial very much. But in the hands of someone on Trump’s right, it could be a lethal weapon.