Jurisprudence

Democrats Are More Convinced Than Ever Trump Committed a Crime. Why Aren’t They Impeaching?

Judiciary Committee Chair Jerold Nadler speaks alongside Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings on Wednesday.
Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler speaks alongside Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings on Wednesday.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s marathon testimony on Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees hardened opinions among a Democratic caucus divided over the political feasibility of impeaching Donald Trump. But while Democrats both inside and outside of party leadership say they are as convinced as ever the president committed a crime, Mueller’s anticlimactic testimony did not move the needle an inch on the political question of whether to launch impeachment proceedings.

Democratic leaders in the House, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who has consistently pumped the brakes on the prospect of impeachment proceedings—said they viewed the takeaway from Mueller’s testimony to be that the president had committed crimes. “There’s a cone of silence of silence in the White House that is engaged in a massive cover-up and obstruction of justice,” Pelosi said. “Those obstruction of justice charges as demonstrated today in the hearings could be indictable offenses by anybody else not the president of the United States.” Despite this strong language, Pelosi reiterated that she didn’t believe the country, nor her party, was ready to move forward with a formal impeachment investigation.

While House Democrats had teased the hearings as a means of making Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian election interference and presidential obstruction of justice come alive for a skeptical public, Mueller unsurprisingly stuck largely to bland one-word “yes” or “no” answers—and there were more than 200 instances of Mueller flat-out refusing to answer questions. As he promised, the former special counsel repeatedly pointed back to his report, at some points even refusing to answer questions addressed in that report. The most potentially explosive news from the day seemed to some to come when Mueller responded affirmatively to Rep. Ted Lieu’s question of whether or not he had declined to indict Trump because of a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel memo preventing a sitting president from being indicted. But Mueller had gone to great lengths in his report and since its release to insist he would not be issuing an opinion on whether the president should be indicted and, inevitably, he walked back that response.

Hill Republicans and Trump, meanwhile, treated the testimony as a great victory for the president. “President Trump’s tenure in office may very well have been extended by four years as a consequence of this hearing,” said Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. While Republicans were painting the hearings as unmitigated political success, Democrats were pointing to the substance of what the special counsel actually said. Mueller directly pushed back against the president’s assertions that he was exonerated by the report. He also described the president’s behavior as unethical, criminal, unpatriotic, and simply wrong.

But Democrats who before Wednesday weren’t ready to impeach are, almost universally, in the same position as they were before. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia. “Those who are in favor of proceeding in favor of impeachment have been strengthened, have been bolstered by this report. I myself believe the report and the testimony of Mueller about his report are still insufficient evidence to take to the Senate for a trial after impeachment in the House.” According to Politico, only one new Democrat, Massachusetts Rep. Lori Trahan, has come out in support of impeachment after the testimony.

Even among pro-impeachment Democrats, there appeared to be a feeling that Mueller’s testimony had not created new momentum to change the party’s current wait-and-see what happens in the courts approach. Pennsylvania Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a member of the Judiciary Committee who has supported impeachment proceedings, said it was clear the president committed crimes. “I think [Mueller] was clear in his report and today that he viewed that OLC memo as preventing him from filing charges against a sitting president,” Scanlon said. Still, she added, “I think we’re going to have to continue to pursue the underlying witnesses and the underlying evidence.” This is the approach they had been taking.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, didn’t even mention impeachment during his press conference with Pelosi and other key committee chairmen, but he did note his opinion on Trump’s criminality. “Only the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president is saving the president from indictment because all of the elements of these crimes were found with considerable, substantial evidence,” Nadler said.

While continuing to hold the line on the “I” word, Pelosi did argue that Mueller’s testimony was a “crossing of a threshold” in public awareness of Mueller’s report. The speaker and the relevant committee chairmen said on Wednesday they want the “strongest possible case” to before they take up an official impeachment inquiry. But House leaders have also indicated they fear a move toward impeachment could risk their majority—and cost them defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Instead, Pelosi said her focus going forward is on “the courts,” where a number of House subpoenas that are currently being ignored by administration officials or challenged by Trump are winding their way through. Democrats, Nadler said, will argue this week before a judge for grand jury information from Mueller’s probe and to enforce a subpoena against former White House counsel Don McGahn, one of Mueller’s key witnesses in the obstruction case. But going the route of the courts could take months. Pelosi said that process wouldn’t be “endless,” but with presidential primaries starting in less than eight months the clock could be running out. Pelosi might not mind.