Mueller report did little to entice Trump 2020 primary challengers

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in El Paso, Texas on Feb. 11, 2019. PlayNicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Trump speaks out about Mueller report

The Mueller report was supposed to be a political game changer.

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For most Americans, the fallout from the Mueller report seems clear. Fifty-eight percent say President Donald Trump lied to the public about the investigation, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. And just 3 in 10 see Trump as exonerated, despite the president’s claims otherwise.

And even with President Trump’s numerous attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s credibility, most Americans view the report as fair and even-handed, according to the survey published on Friday.

With numbers like that it’s easy to see why some may have figured that despite previous false alarms, this time around, the Mueller report, would result in a dramatic upheaval of support and Republican loyalty to the president — perhaps even attracting a chorus of eager GOP primary challengers to line up to run against Trump post-Mueller report.

Nevertheless, it’s been more than a week after the report’s release and no additional Republicans have stepped up to challenge for the party’s presidential nomination and only a handful of major GOP figures have even spoken out critically regarding its findings.

Rumors had been swirling since Mueller’s appointment back in 2017 about a number of never-Trump Republicans reportedly waiting in the wings to pounce on the president following the report’s release, in hopes perhaps that it would deliver such a blow to Trump, who’s been historically popular within the party, that a feasible lane for a 2020 primary challenge would emerge.

So far, no such lane has materialized and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who jumped in prior to the report’s redacted release, remains the sole Republican running against the president for the party’s nomination.

Even Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who said Tuesday that he’s seriously considering a primary challenge against Trump and called the report “very disturbing,” remains on the sidelines while Weld and other Republicans continue to call for him to jump into the race.

One reason for the hesitation by outspoken Trump critics like Hogan, or long-rumored 2020 hopeful former Governor John Kasich, to challenge the president could simply be in response to the report’s anemic impact on voters. Despite the revelations emerging from the bombshell investigation and most Americans saying they think the president lied about the investigation, the president's approval rating among Republicans remains historically high at nearly 80%, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Even better for the president, the poll found that support for impeaching Trump actually sank to a new low, 37 percent, once again despite most Americans saying the Mueller report did not exonerate him.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019, in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But still, anti-Trump Republicans who were hoping the report would lead to a larger reckoning within the party can’t help but feel let down by the GOP response.

“I'm still truly disappointed,” former 2016 independent candidate for president and a vocal critic of the Trump administration Evan McMullin told ABC News. The former CIA official, who still considers himself a Republican, said it was disheartening to see Republicans “openly talk” about their electability rather than uphold their oath to protect the constitution.

“Instead of honoring that oath, almost all elected Republicans are choosing just to look out for themselves and make sure they'll be reelected the next round. It's amazing how openly they talk about that,” McMullin said.

Following the report’s release, the president’s fierce Republican defenders in Congress took a victory lap, with Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, calling on Democrats to “apologize to the American people for misleading them and the press about this smear campaign.”

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who once vocally opposed the president, urged Congress to “move forward,” without mentioning or weighing in on any of the report’s less flattering findings regarding the the president’s depicted behavior.

And while fellow once-never-Trumper Sen. Rob Portman called "a number of actions taken by the president or his associates” inappropriate, the majority of the senator’s press release focused on Mueller finding that there was “no conspiracy or collusion to violate U.S. law between Russia and the Trump campaign.”

Even Sen. Mitt Romney’s statement saying he was “sickened” by the report, perhaps the strongest Republican rebuke of Trump’s actions detailed by Mueller, mostly echoed similar statements the Utah senator had made in the past, stopping short of calling for impeachment or even a primary challenger.

Veteran Republican and leading never-Trumper Bill Kristol told ABC News that while he was also disappointed in the Republican reaction to the Mueller report, the response was what he’s come to expect from the party he still calls home. “For elected officials there's not much incentive for them to stick their heads up at this point, sadly,” Kristol said. “I certainly wouldn't say there was a great number of profiles in courage. But that's what I expected.”

Despite calls from some conservatives like Romney and McMullin, along with a laundry list of Democrats decrying the report’s findings, other members of the party on the Hill argue that most Americans are starting to tune out the back and forth in D.C. surrounding the will-Trump-or-won't-Trump be impeached. And red-state members of Congress pay close attention to Trump’s sky-high approval rating with the party and can’t fathom fundraising or facing reelection while opposing such a popular president.

In private, however, there are Republicans who are more vocal about the tensions within the GOP following the report’s release and the president’s dominant hold of the party at large.

“It's a shame that we can't do better,” a senior Republican operative told ABC News. “The fact that [the Mueller report] is being absorbed and it hasn't upended the political status quo is a commentary on where the bar has been set for Republicans.”

And for now, that status quo seems to be intact even a week after the redacted Mueller reports release. Republicans in Congress are sticking to the same corners they carved out back when Trump first rolled into town, and the field of Trump primary challengers looks largely unaffected and very Bill Weld heavy.

“I hope that it does,” McMullen said when asked if the Mueller report could push others to run. “I hope that more Republicans get into the race,” he added, while also noting it's “highly unlikely” he’ll run this time around.

But for Kristol, who’s long called for Republicans to primary the president, he thinks there’s only a slim chance the Mueller report would inch someone like Hogan toward a run — but it could start chipping away from Trump’s support among certain “reluctant Trump acquiescer.”

“If Hogan is hearing what I'm hearing, it probably will only affect him a little getting into the race,” Kristol said. “Some [reluctant Trump supporters] are rattled by the report. They've talked themselves into accepting this, even tho they don't like it much, Trump's leadership of the party.”

“But now you’re looking at four more years? That's pretty risky. Trump telling everyone to lie — and what if we get people in [the White House] who won't ignore his orders?” Kristol added.