The Mueller Report and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Race: an Event by the Guarini Institute

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The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs presented an event entitled “The Mueller Report and the 2020 Presidential Race” at John Cabot University on July 17, 2019. The speakers were Hans Noel (Guarini Institute advisor and associate professor of government and the American Government field chair of Georgetown University), Andrew Spannaus (freelance journalist and analyst based in Milan), and Anna Zafesova (freelance journalist and analyst for Italian and foreign media and research centers). The event was moderated by Eduardo Albrecht, an alumnus of John Cabot University, now professor at Mercy College in New York City and part of the Guarini Institute advisory council.

From left: Eduardo Albrecht, Hans Noel, Anna Zafesova, and Andrew Spannaus.

From left: Eduardo Albrecht, Hans Noel, Anna Zafesova, and Andrew Spannaus.

The Mueller Report, originally titled Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, was written by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2019 and analyzes Russia’s attempts to intervene in the 2016 United States presidential elections, the links between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials, and the accusation of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump. The Congressional testimony of Robert Mueller was scheduled to take place on July 24, 2019. The panel discussion gave an overview of The Mueller Report and its implications regarding the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Hans Noel, whose research focuses on political coalitions, parties and ideologies, began the panel discussion. He provided the audience with a context of The Mueller Report and 2020 elections by emphasizing three points. First of all, Noel stated that any implications of The Mueller Report are ultimately political, not legal. For example, the process of impeachment does not go through the independent judiciary, but through the House of Representatives. Politicians are not just influenced by legal factors in their decisions, but they must also be concerned with broader political implications. Democrats who do not agree with the actions of Trump could potentially vote for his impeachment. The Senate, controlled by Republicans, could then turn against its own candidate (as it happened with President Nixon), depending on political circumstances and opportunity.

The second point Noel brought up was that different actors have different incentives that are going to cause “things to push in a different direction.” Republicans and Democrats have different constituencies. The degree to which the US electorate is divided means that a small shift in votes will not be enough to make considerable changes. Noel concluded that the results of the 2020 elections are going to be won over a narrow margin. He added that it will be hard to predict and interpret the results of the elections, just as it happened in the 2016 election.

Andrew Spannaus, author of Why Trump Wins (2016) and Original Sins: Globalization, Populism, and the Six Contradictions Facing the European Union (2019) continued the discussion by explaining two views, political and legal, on The Mueller Report. From one side, the overriding political question regarding The Mueller Report is the fact that Donald Trump successfully went against the US Foreign policy and economic establishment. From the legal perspective, the open question of interference into the elections by itself is not considered a crime. Moreover, according to Spannaus, the U.S. national security establishment is going too far in trying to stop Trump from forming a relationship with Russia. Therefore, Russia is not the main threat to the U.S. For this reason, trying to convince Americans to vote against Trump, only because of his ties with Vladimir Putin would be politically unfavorable for Democrats. Spannaus claimed that it would be much smarter to challenge Trump on his economic populism, on issues where “he’s strong, not weak.” Spannaus then concluded “if the Democrats are smart, the role of The Mueller Report in the upcoming elections will be fairly limited.”

Finally, Anna Zafesova, whose research focuses on post-Soviet transition in Ukraine and Russia, and the populist movements in the EU, shed some light on the Russian point of view regarding The Mueller Report and the Russiagate scandal (the interference in the 2016 US presidential elections by hackers and trolls funded by Russia on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets). Zafesova described two types of Russian involvement in the Russiagate events. The first one is creating and spreading the information that would “pay on Trump’s side” on social media. Second, more direct manipulation of sensitive information, such as hacking servers and spreading information (hacking Hilary Clinton’s emails and supplies to WikiLeaks). Russia’s actions, Zafesova argues, could be explained by its economic and political situation back in 2016. After the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Russia had to face economic sanctions from the West. In order to come out of economic isolation, Russia needed a considerable diplomatic breakthrough. According to Zafesova, the establishment of personal relations with Trump was seen as a perfect solution to this matter by Putin. However, the collision of two ideologies was bound to happen, as one wanted to make “America Great Again”, while the other was guided by the rhetoric of making “Russia Great Again.” So, this kind of misunderstanding ended up in what Putin proclaimed “the worst point of American-Russian relations.”

(Kamila Sabyrrakhim)