Robert S. Mueller III’s statement on Wednesday, in which he reiterated the conclusions of his investigation and declined to clear President Donald Trump, seemed to open a dam in the Democratic presidential field.
Before Mueller spoke, seven of the 23 candidates had endorsed impeachment proceedings against Trump. By midafternoon, 10 had done so, with others edging closer.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York came out explicitly in favor of impeachment proceedings for the first time on Wednesday.
They joined Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Eric Swalwell of California, former housing secretary Julián Castro, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, who had previously voiced their support for impeachment proceedings.
But several leading candidates were more hesitant. A representative for former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that Biden “agrees with Speaker Pelosi that no one would relish what would certainly be a divisive impeachment process, but that it may be unavoidable if this administration continues on its path.” As he left a campaign event in Dallas on Wednesday, Biden did not stop to engage a sizable group of reporters who shouted questions about Mueller toward him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, too, avoided an outright endorsement of beginning impeachment proceedings, but tweeted, “If the House Judiciary Committee deems it necessary, I will support their decision.”
The ground has shifted since the Justice Department released its redacted version of Mueller’s report. While a few candidates, including Warren, called for impeachment then, they were in the minority, and officials on other campaigns said there had been little pressure from voters.
But now, a majority of the Democratic field has expressed support, explicitly or implicitly, for impeachment.
Last month, Booker said he would reserve judgment until Congress received a full version of the report, telling voters in Nevada, “There’s a lot more investigation that should go on before Congress comes to any conclusions like that.” On Wednesday, however, he said on Twitter that legislators had “a legal and moral obligation” to pursue impeachment.
Buttigieg tweeted that Mueller “could not clear the president, nor could he charge him — so he has handed the matter to Congress, which alone can act to deliver due process and accountability.” Gillibrand wrote similarly that after listening to Mueller’s statement, she believed he “clearly expects Congress to exercise its constitutional authority and take steps that he could not.”
Several candidates seized on one line in Mueller’s statement, in which he said that under Justice Department policy, filing criminal charges against Trump was never an option — but that the Constitution provided another mechanism. It was a clear reference to impeachment, and Buttigieg, Harris, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota all characterized it as, essentially, an impeachment referral.
In a lengthy email sent to supporters, Moulton, who this month had already called for impeachment, wrote: “The Mueller investigation has provided the evidence. It’s up to Congress to examine that evidence and pursue justice to its conclusion.”
As members of the House, Moulton and Swalwell — who tweeted pointedly, “Our founders gave us a checks & balances system” — are the only pro-impeachment candidates so far who actually have the power to affect the decision.
The other sitting representatives in the race are Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has said she opposes impeachment, and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who did not call for it explicitly on Wednesday but edged about as close to the line as he could without stepping across.
“The President, no President, is above the law,” Ryan wrote. “And it’s Congress’ job to make sure we are true to our founding principle that the President is not a King and must answer to the American people.”