Donald Trump’s words echoed across Washington on a Sunday afternoon in late March as Attorney General William Barr revealed the long-awaited conclusions of the Russia-gate probe. Indeed, after nearly two years of investigation into Kremlin interference in the 2016 campaign, special counsel Robert Mueller had found no collusion. And while, according to Barr, Mueller carefully noted that his report did not completely exonerate Trump on the charge of obstruction of justice, the president blew through the legalese, knowing the distinction would make no difference to much of the American public and certainly not to his loyal Republican base. “It’s a shame that our country had to go through this,” he said before boarding Air Force One for the nation’s capital after a weekend of golf at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “To be honest, it’s a shame your president had to go through this.”
“This,” Trump added, “was an illegal takedown that failed.”
Republicans celebrated. Democrats griped. Presidential contenders, a New York Times headline blared, would now have to emphasize—gulp—issues. But it was yet another group that felt the sting almost as much: the Never Trumpers.
For much of the past two years, this constellation of Republican lawmakers, conservative pundits and policy wonks, and GOP operatives had hoped Mueller would help rid them of, as they saw him, the crude political rube who had hijacked their beloved Grand Old Party. Some campaigned loudly for Trump’s demise, on Twitter and cable news. Others, however, operated mostly in the shadows. Like dissidents in an authoritarian country, they held secret meetings in a conference room of a little-known Washington think tank called the Niskanen Center. About once a month, they shared private polling data on Trump, passed along the names of political activists around the country who opposed the president, and perhaps most importantly, discussed potential primary challengers who could lead the “Dump Trump” movement.
Just weeks before the Mueller news, a group of lobbyists, congressional aides and policy experts from conservative think tanks spent an entire session talking about how to sell free trade and fiscal restraint to voters in the age of Trump. Now, these Republicans face a reinvigorated and vengeful standard bearer, fully embraced by a party establishment no longer encumbered by the looming threat of a criminal indictment from Mueller. “The cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham.
Publicly, the Never Trumpers say their unlikely cause endures. “This was never about Mueller or the Russia investigation,” says Rick Wilson, the Florida-based Republican operative and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies. “It’s about his unfitness for office.”
“He’s incompetent and really bad for the party,” says Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP strategist, “and he’ll hand the country over to a party that’s going full socialist.”
“We need to see the Mueller report,” conservative commentator Bill Kristol wrote on Twitter, echoing Democrats on Capitol Hill. The evidence “will confirm he ought not be re-elected.”
But privately, members of this group acknowledge the dream is dying, if not already dead, the Herculean task of bringing down an incumbent president from inside the party now infinitely harder, if not impossible. Yes, a bevy of other investigations in state and federal prosecutors’ offices as well as in Congress are proceeding on everything from hush money payments to money laundering to illegal donations, and Mueller’s confidential report—Barr has vowed to release a public version in the coming weeks—may yet contain damaging details about Trump’s conduct. But for the moment, it seems the single, largest bullet is gone. After nearly two years of Russia-gate frenzy and impeachment talk, Democratic leaders are moving on, attempting to pivot to health care and other kitchen-table issues. And Trump and the GOP are now the ones on the offensive, with the president pledging to investigate the “treasonous” people behind the Mueller “witch hunt.” A Reuters/Ipsos poll found Trump’s job approval jumping 4 points, to 43 percent, in the wake of the findings.