Washington, D.C.

A looming decision for Democrats: whether to initiate impeachment

Mueller 'unable' to clear Trump
President Donald Trump arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., hours after the redacted release of the Mueller report, April 18, 2019.
President Donald Trump arrives in West Palm Beach, Fla., hours after the redacted release of the Mueller report, April 18, 2019.

WASHINGTON — House Democrats, facing some of the most striking evidence yet from Robert Mueller that President Donald Trump attempted to thwart his investigation, edged closer Thursday to confronting a question they have long tried to avoid: whether the president’s behavior warrants impeachment.

Although the more than 400-page report made public Thursday found “insufficient evidence” to conclude that Trump conspired in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and cited legal and factual constraints preventing Mueller from charging Trump with obstruction of justice, the special counsel presented months of damning presidential behavior that Democrats said left it up to Congress to review.

“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” Mueller wrote in the report.

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House Democrats, in particular, took that legal analysis as a clear nod that Congress should take the next step to make its own judgment, although Republicans disagreed with that view.

The question is how Democrats will proceed.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants are keenly aware of the risks of initiating an impeachment inquiry. They are intent on not repeating what they view as the mistakes made by Republicans who undertook a partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s and failed to get him removed from office by the Senate. Both parties at the time believed the effort bolstered Clinton’s national standing and hurt Republicans at the polls.

In this case, even if the House did muster the votes to impeach Trump, 20 Republicans in the Senate would have to join all Democrats to remove Trump from office.

Looking at those numbers, the president’s looming re-election campaign and his firm support within his party, Pelosi has repeatedly tried to throw cold water on the idea of impeachment. Better to beat Trump on the merits in 2020, she has argued, than risk a failed impeachment that energizes his core supporters.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, echoed those points Thursday. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Hoyer told CNN. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment.”

Democrats will be able to draw questions about the president’s behavior out for months, if not longer, keeping a cloud over Trump as he runs for re-election. Several House committees have already opened broad investigations into Russian election interference, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Those inquiries can easily funnel in Mueller’s findings and serve as a release valve on calls for Trump’s removal.

Still, Pelosi and her allies also run risks in not moving toward impeachment. Voices on the Democrats’ left flank appear to have been emboldened by Mueller’s report and will remind party leaders that letting Trump entirely off the hook for behavior they believe threatens the separation of powers sets a dangerous precedent for the country.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the leader of the Financial Services Committee, broke with party leaders, saying Congress would be abdicating its responsibility if it does not attempt to remove Trump.

“At this point, Congress’ failure to impeach is complacency in the face of the erosion of our democracy and constitutional norms,” Waters said. “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.”

Other Democrats did their best to avoid any judgments on impeachment Thursday and instead focused their attention on the actions of Attorney General William Barr and an immediate fight over access to Mueller’s full findings. At least one chairman, whose committee would lead any impeachment proceedings, pointedly refused to say whether he viewed the actions laid out by Mueller as worthy of opening such an inquiry, although he did not foreclose the possibility.

“It is too early to talk about that,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters. “We will have to go follow the evidence where it leads. And I don’t know exactly where it will lead.”

Nadler said he would issue a subpoena as soon as possible to try to compel Barr to hand over an unredacted version of the special counsel’s report and underlying evidence, which he asserted was “written with the intent of providing Congress a road map” for further scrutiny. Nadler and another Democratic chairman also extended formal invitations to Mueller to testify before Congress in the coming weeks after they grill Barr himself.

“The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president, and the responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions,” he said.

Far from signaling an interest in assisting them, Republicans quickly sought to paint Democrats as in denial about the investigation’s true conclusions. Scattered across the country for Congress’ spring recess, Republican lawmakers sidestepped the specific behavior — including Trump’s repeated efforts in 2017 to fire Mueller — documented by the special counsel. They instead embraced statements by Barr that Trump’s actions did not amount to obstruction of justice in a legal sense and that his campaign had been cleared of suspicions that they colluded with Russia to subvert the 2016 election.

“It is time to move on,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House. “Americans deserve better than this partisan quest to vilify a political opponent, and I urge our Democratic colleagues in the House to put their emotions and opinions aside, and instead use that passion to come to the table and work on real solutions for all Americans.”

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