Western governors shrug off Flynn furor
PHOENIX — While Mike Flynn’s downfall roiled Washington, the governors of 10 western states took shelter in an alternate universe 2,000 miles away.
Republican and Democratic governors alike shrugged off the former national security adviser’s guilty plea to one felony count of lying to the FBI at a Western Governors Association meeting here, instead singing Christmas carol-inspired songs about one another before discussing wildfires, land management and workforce development at the Arizona Biltmore hotel.
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Hours after the news broke Friday, several governors said they weren’t even aware of the development when queried by a reporter.
Efforts to minimize controversy are not uncommon at bipartisan gatherings of politicians who share common regional interests. But the inclination of so many governors to skirt a moment of near-hysteria in Washington in the Russia probe also served as a reminder of how much controversy consuming the capital has failed to break through outside of D.C.
“It’s not something that we’re spending a lot of time watching,” Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, said of Flynn, before adding with a chuckle, “I think the FBI’s lied to me a few times.”
Hawaii’s Democratic governor, David Ige, would say only that the Russia investigation represented an “important question.” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he is “curious” about the investigation, but added that for many of his constituents, “I think we end up having these issues politicized so much by both sides that people get a little glassy-eyed about it and say, ‘You know, do I really care?’”
Public polling for months has suggested Americans are mixed on the issue of the Russia investigation. The most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found it to be a top or important priority for 53 percent of voters, but 36 percent said it was not important or should not be conducted — and another 10 percent had no opinion at all.
A Harvard-Harris Poll in November found that 38 percent of voters say special counsel Robert Mueller has found evidence of Trump’s campaign colluding with Russia, while 36 percent of voters say he has not found such evidence and 27 percent of voters don’t know.
At the resort where the governors and their aides gathered this weekend, it was unclear if the development will have any enduring effect on public opinion. Nearly every television was tuned to ESPN — not cable networks carrying hours of Flynn commentary — and local newscasts turned to the Russia investigation only after reports of a stabbing, a car crash and, on one station, a game called “Who tweeted it?”
“It’s a hard concept for your average voter and even your average political person to understand,” said Scott Simpson, a Democratic consultant who works on congressional races throughout the country. “There’s nothing sexy about it. And obstruction of justice takes a lawyer talking in very simple language to explain to you how it happens. It’s not a crime like murder.”
Simpson said that “maybe if it was a slow news day, people would kind of process it.” But he added, “There’s just so much going on, how can you process what’s going on with an investigation, when the president does whatever he does and North Korea says they’re going to launch a nuke … It’s kind of hard to show people how [the Russia investigation] impacts them.”
In the short-term, news of Flynn’s guilty plea caused panic in the stock market and caught the White House off guard. Democrats competing in mid-term elections next year sought to exploit the development in their fundraising appeals, while sitting Democrats called for renewed urgency in the Russia investigation.
But by late Friday, the Russia investigation was also competing for attention with furious maneuvering on a tax bill in the Senate and new revelations about sexual harassment by members of Congress. Sidestepping all of it, at the winter meeting of the Western Governors Association, it was business as usual. Before a press conference Friday, South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, heralded the group’s “fierce commitment to non-partisanship,” an edict with which his fellow governors fell in line.