After Mueller report, Democrats divided over end game – investigate Trump or impeach
WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert Mueller III’s report gave House Democrats a road map for investigating President Donald Trump and the cue they were waiting for – but the party was divided Friday over what, ultimately, should be their end game.
In one camp, a faction of Democrats determined to pursue impeachment of Trump was emboldened by the report, seizing on Mueller’s detailed findings about 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice to revive calls for delivering the ultimate congressional censure.
Ramping up the pressure for impeachment Friday were two presidential hopefuls – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Julián Castro, former Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration.
“The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty,” Warren said. “That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States.”
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team have tamped down talk of impeachment, with a sense among top Democrats that the Mueller report – which many Democrats see as incriminating in its details of a president trying to undermine the investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election – has changed nothing when it comes to the impeachment question.
Democratic leaders appear to be coalescing around a strategy of continuing their investigations of Trump, while arguing that their constitutional mandate doesn’t necessitate that they impeach the president – even if they agree he broke the law. Rather, they argue that Congress can unearth corrupt information about him – then take it to voters in the 2020 election.
In talking points sent to lawmakers Thursday night, leadership urged them to highlight Mueller’s findings that did not exonerate Trump, criticize Attorney General William Barr’s “deliberately distorted” summary of Mueller’s report, and call out Trump for trying to obstruct the probe.
Nowhere in the nearly 1,000-word document is the word “impeachment” used.
Some Democrats see impeachment as a political exercise that could cost them the House majority and the presidency in 2020, and is largely futile with Republicans controlling the Senate. While some in the GOP were unnerved by the report, they welcomed that Mueller took no legal steps against Trump.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was “good news” that there was insufficient evidence to charge the president, but he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the president.”
Romney, who in 2012 warned that Russia was the preeminent geopolitical threat, said he was appalled that those working on the Trump campaign welcomed help from Russia.
Democratic leaders have been in touch with lawmakers hosting town halls throughout the two-week congressional recess, and voters are rarely expressing a desire to impeach the president, according to one leadership official. Instead, constituents are focused on health care, transportation, jobs and prescription drugs.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private conversations.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., highlighted that view during a CNN interview Thursday night when pressed on whether Congress had to impeach Trump for his actions.
Jeffries argued that “our primary focus has and will continue to be on executing our ‘For the People’ agenda as it relates to kitchen table pocketbook issues.” Rather, Congress, he said, would do their utmost to allow Mueller to tell his story in public through testimony, and promise to try to get the full document released to the public to illuminate the extent of what Democrats call Trump’s corruption.
“The avenue is not impeachment,” he said. “The avenue is further disclosure to the American people.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Friday called the report “a damning recitation of lies, misinformation, and malfeasance,” and said it clearly sets a basis for “probable cause that crimes were, in fact, committed,” but focused on investigations, with no mention of impeachment.
The House Judiciary Committee, which would be tasked with starting any impeachment proceedings, on Friday issued a subpoena to the Justice Department for the full Mueller report by May 1, after the release of the redacted version on Thursday.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called the subpoena “premature and unnecessary” in light of how much of the report is already public, and because the Justice Department has already made arrangements for lawmakers to see a less-redacted version of it.
But several committee chairmen and top Democrats on Friday rejected a review of a less-redacted version of the report for a select group of lawmakers.
Democrats have maintained that it is difficult for them to weave all their potential lines of inquiry into one focused trajectory because they don’t know how it came together for Mueller – and for that, they fault Barr, who has not yet given lawmakers access to Mueller’s unredacted product, much less the evidence that informed it.
Pelosi has left the investigative agenda largely up to the heads of the committees pursuing the highest-profile probes into the president. But they are carefully considering their next steps, having yet to announce major investigative goals or even other public hearings.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been tight-lipped about what his next steps are beyond testimony from Barr before his committee on May 2. Nadler also wants to schedule an interview with Mueller before May 23.
Speaking to WNYC radio in New York on Friday, Nadler promised that he would “have major hearings” in the committee with “several figures key to the report’s findings” – but would not detail who.
“We will call a lot of other people. We’ll see who they are,” Nadler said.
The House Intelligence Committee has been similarly silent about when it might schedule hearings that chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., postponed, such as one with former Trump business associate Felix Sater.
At the same time, some Democratic investigators say it’s too early rule out an effort to oust the president.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, unequivocally backed impeachment in a statement Thursday evening, arguing that “Congress’ failure to impeach is complacency in the face of the erosion of our democracy and constitutional norms.”
“Congress’ failure to impeach would set a dangerous precedent and imperil the nation as it would vest too much power in the executive branch and embolden future officeholders to further debase the U.S. presidency, if that’s even possible,” said Waters, who is investigating Trump’s businesses and plans to continue to do so.