Mueller report could ward off would-be Trump primary challengers

CONCORD, NH -- The findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation report could make primary challenges to President Donald Trump even more difficult.

“There’s no question it’s a huge victory for the president and it undermines a core argument about Russian collusion,” said a longtime GOP strategist who’s a veteran of numerous White House campaigns.

"I do think it’s going to make it more difficult to draw a contrast in a primary,” said the operative, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely.

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Mueller’s nearly two-year-long investigation did not establish that members of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government to interfere in the election in favor of Trump and at the expense of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Mueller’s long-awaited findings also did not take a clear position on whether Trump obstructed justice, with no conclusions that the president committed a crime but also not exonerating Trump.

Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Sunday concluded, though, that Mueller’s report did not contain sufficient evidence to establish that Trump committed obstruction of justice.

The news doesn’t appear to do any favors for anyone mulling a primary challenge against a president who remains extremely popular among Republicans.

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But former two-term Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld wasn’t dissuaded.

Weld, who’s moving closer to taking on Trump in next year’s GOP primaries, said Barr’s Sunday announcement is “kind of neutral to my effort.”

Speaking with Fox News while campaigning Monday in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, Weld explained that he “wasn’t really counting on the president getting caught in the soup for having said ‘I hope the Russians find more emails’ during the heat of the campaign. That never grabbed me as an indictable or impeachable offense, frankly.”

Asked if the news makes his longshot bid even longer, Weld quickly answered “no.”

And Weld – who set up a presidential exploratory committee in February - stressed that allegations of Russian collusion were “only one of the many, many questions that's been raised about the President.”

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The former governor - who returned to the Republican Party after running as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016 – said he’ll pull the trigger on deciding on a primary challenge in April.

“I doubt there would be anything to prevent me doing this,” he added. “I’m feeling more comfortable with this all the time.”

He also said he could raise the money needed to launch a primary challenge.

“I’m looking for old school money, my rolodex of years past,” he said. “I have reason to believe we will be adequately funded.”

A top adviser to former two-term Gov. John Kasich of Ohio also downplayed the significance of the findings.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think this, a month from now, will have made much difference.  And we haven’t seen the Mueller report. We’ve only seen the Barr memo,” John Weaver told Fox News. “And as usual, the White House and Trump world have gotten way over their skis, because I suspect the narrative written by Bob Mueller is a little bit different than the narrative written by the Attorney General.”

Kasich, a longtime vocal critic of the president who finished second to Trump in the 2016 New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, is mulling a 2020 primary challenge.

Weaver suggested that Barr’s Sunday announcement is “not going to impact the governor’s thinking one way or another because we weren’t hinging our decision on any one thing like this.”

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The other possible primary challenger to Trump is two-term Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who’s heading to New Hampshire in April to speak at ‘Politics and Eggs,’ a must stop for White House hopefuls. Fox News reached out to a top Hogan political adviser but received no response.

A veteran New Hampshire-based GOP operative wasn’t as optimistic as Weld or Weaver.

Michael Dennehy – who served as a top adviser on Sen. John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns – said that the summary findings from the Mueller report and the announcement by Barr would make a primary challenge more difficult.

“Of those Republicans who are unhappy with the president, this removes arguably the biggest obstacle for the president in any potential primary campaign,” Dennehy said.

Coli Reed agreed that “trying to primary President Trump was always going to be an uphill climb.”

But the veteran GOP strategist added, “I doubt the events of the weekend are going to move the needle much in either direction. Trump’s numbers with Republicans have always been rock solid, even during some of the more tumultuous points of his presidency.”