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From "witch hunt" to 2020 campaign slogan: Trump sees Mueller as boost for re-election

Trump reacts to summary of Mueller report
Trump reacts to summary of Mueller report 13:44

For the better part of his presidency and as recently as last week, Donald Trump denigrated Robert Mueller's investigation as a partisan "witch hunt," and he has at times said it was led by a "a prosecutor gone rogue" and a group of "angry" Democrats.

Now, after the probe found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, the president's view has evolved -- he now sees the special counsel's conclusion as a boon to his re-election campaign.

While the entire report has yet to be released to Congress and the public, and even as Mueller did not make a determination of whether the president obstructed justice, Mr. Trump viewed Attorney General William Barr's outline of principal findings as a complete vindication. And his campaign sees a clear opportunity to not only disparage Democrats but to also convince wobbly Republicans not to cross the president.

The president described the investigation as an "illegal takedown," even as the special counsel was legally appointed by his own Justice Department. "We can never let this happen to another president again... Very few people I know could have handled it," Trump said at the White House on Monday.  

"Democrats took us on a frantic, chaotic, conspiracy-laden roller coaster for two years, alleging wrongdoing where there was none," said Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. "Despite a roving Special Counsel and desperate Democrats trailing him every step of the way, President Trump has kept his focus where it belongs: achieving for the American people."

Additionally, Trump allies have used the conclusion to slam the media, a favorite foil of the president's.

"It gives us an opportunity to basically get people focused back on real issues and away from this phony investigation," says John McLaughlin, the president's 2016 campaign pollster. "The media bias is going to be a big factor in the election, more than I've ever seen before."

Already the president's allies have taken to social media and other outlets to celebrate the findings. The campaign released a web video montage of various prominent Democrats referencing evidence of collusion.

Democrats, including most 2020 candidates, have called for the entire report to be made public, and they say that Barr's letter was not sufficient. Others have raised questions about the attorney general's clearing the president of obstruction of justice, as the special counsel stated, according to Barr, that it "'does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.'"

However, Democratic strategists have long argued that issues like health care and taxes are far more mobilizing for their base voters than the Mueller report had been. Health care was a centerpiece of the Democrats' 2018 campaign, which yielded 40 House seats, with the bulk of victories coming in suburban, Republican districts. While 2020 candidates have been calling for Mueller to finish his work unencumbered, few have made the probe a central issue on the campaign trail.

Some Trump allies see the conclusion of the investigation as a way to not only win over Republicans, but to also reach out to voters they lost in 2018.

"The average person, the kind of people we brought out in 2016, I think they are going to be fired up and they're going to see a president who actually brought results in their lives," says McLaughlin.  "If he gets back to that issue focus, his job approval will go up, while Democrats are going to have a free for all on the other side and chew each other up."

At the same time, however, Mr. Trump and Republicans have also hinted at additional investigations. "We've been through a period, we've had very bad things happen and those people are certainly to be looked at," the president said Monday. "I've been looking at for a long time and I'm saying, 'why haven't they been looked at?'"

During a press conference Monday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham called again for a special counsel probe other 2016 campaign-related issues, including how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant was obtained and used to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. "We'll begin to unpack other side of story, he said. 

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