When the long-awaited report from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III landed last week, that the response from California was more or less . . . crickets.
Not so long ago, it seemed that the anti-Trump rhetoric emanating from California’s Capitol had reached peak snark.
The month of March brought not only the usual mean tweets between the president and Gov. Gavin Newsom, but also a sarcastic note to Vice President Mike Pence from the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly and committee passage of a Trump-trolling proposal mandating that all 2020 presidential candidates show us their tax returns.
So it was notable last week, when the long-awaited report from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III landed, that the response from California’s state leaders was more or less . . . crickets.
News that the special counsel had concluded the president had not colluded with Russia in his election generated gushers of punditry elsewhere. But here on the Western front of the so-called resistance, all was quiet.
In the hours and days following Mueller’s revelations, prominent Democratic state leaders took to Twitter to talk about abortion access, college funding, homelessness, gun violence—almost anything, it seemed, other than Russia.
Not until Tuesday did Newsom publicly comment on the news nearly every other Trump critic in America was talking about.
“I take a backseat to no one in terms of my desire to see this full un-redacted report made public to the American people,” Newsom said in a brief exchange with reporters following a forum on affordable housing, adding that the four-page summary from U.S. Attorney General William Barr “didn’t tell me much.”
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon was, when asked, similarly dismissive of the biggest news from the nation’s capital, saying he, too, wants to see Mueller’s full report, but that the investigation “has very little to do with… California’s interaction with the federal government.”
Just a week earlier, Rendon had made a public show of responding to a routine communication from the White House with a letter needling Trump and Pence.
“Thanks to your policies,” Rendon wrote, “voters in California added five Democrats to the Assembly in the last election. In addition, one Republican has decided to jump to the Democratic Party, citing the President’s extreme positions.”
Neener-neener, by the way, was a departure for Rendon. Over the last two years, he’s criticized other Democratic legislators for supporting what he saw as symbolic gestures that did little more than show their animus against the White House. But there’s a new governor in California and with him, a more combative spirit in the Capitol toward the White House, generally.
Jerry Brown was selective about taking pot-shots at Trump, and refused to use the word “resistance.” Newsom jabs at the president more frequently and overtly campaigned on the R-word. It may wind up costing the state. The Trump administration threatened to take back billions of dollars the federal government gave California to build a high-speed train—days after Newsom poked at the president during his state-of-the-state speech, by saying he intends to scale back the project but is “not interested in sending $3.5 billion … back to Donald Trump.”
However, the conventional wisdom among California politicos has been that baiting Trump has little downside for politicians in a big state dominated by Democrats vying for a piece of a crowded spotlight.
Rendon dismissed the suggestion that Newsom’s jousting style had any influence on his letter. But he acknowledged that campaigning against Trump helps Democrats win in California, where a recent poll shows just 29 percent of adults approve of the President. (By contrast, the Public Policy Institute of California reports, 45 percent approve of Newsom and 46 percent approve of the Legislature.)
“Asking Republicans to defend a president who’s pretty much a white supremacist, who has locked up children and separated them from their families, I think doing that at the same time as passing good policy tends to be a pretty good recipe for winning elections,” said Rendon, who helped Democrats flip several Assembly seats last year and secure a historically large margin of power.
Clearly, the approach for California Democrats has tilted toward meeting fire with fire when it comes to the president’s barbs. And they are now gearing up to try to win back the White House.
But talking about Russia, apparently, isn’t going to be part of the plan.
“People in California are worried about what’s going to happen here in California,” Fiona Ma, the Democratic state treasurer, said this week at the Sacramento Press Club.
George Lakoff, a retired UC Berkeley linguistics professor who has written that conservatives are better than liberals at effective political messaging, agreed that Newsom and other state leaders are right to focus on California issues.
And when they do discuss Mueller’s findings, he adds, they should emphasize the difference between the special counsel’s voluminous report, which has not been released, and Barr’s four-page summary.
“They should say, ‘The Barr report cannot be trusted and we haven’t seen the Mueller report,’” Lakoff said. “That needs to be said over and over. The term ‘Barr report,’ not the ‘Mueller report,’ needs to be out there.”