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(CNN) —  

What do Democrats really want from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation?

It’s a simple enough question, but the answers can be complicated and conflicting. The most obvious, and prevalent, would be the “smoking gun” – proof positive that President Donald Trump personally negotiated or signed off on the terms of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

The reality, of course, is that Mueller is unlikely to turn up anything quite so bold. And even if he did, Trump and his loyalists are unlikely to throw up their hands, pack their bags and hand over the White House keys. Republicans in Congress have done nothing to suggest they would press the matter. Democrats know this, so they seem to be pursuing a milder, and perhaps wiser, course.

As Mueller escalated on Monday, indicting Trump’s former campaign boss and one of his deputies, while also revealing he’d made a “proactive cooperator” out of a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, Democrats mostly kept their heads down. Rather than focus on Trump and Paul Manafort, they sought to fortify the special counsel’s mandate.

Statements from top Democratic officials in Washington suggested the party line is, at the highest levels, focused on putting the process ahead of the politics – to reinforce the guardrails rather than try to map out the road ahead.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned against any kind of move by the administration to interfere with Mueller’s work. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, also urged bipartisan action in the event Trump moved to pardon himself or “any of his associates.”

That strategy is a product of the political reality of the moment. Democrats have no leverage with Republicans apart from their ability to rally the grass-roots and offer their support to outside activists.

MoveOn.org, the liberal organization that takes its name from the backlash to the Clinton impeachment, is among the groups working from that playbook. In an email Monday, organizers highlighted their plans for a mass mobilization of protesters to confront any White House intervention.

“The closer Robert Mueller gets to the truth, the harder we must work to protect his investigation from Donald Trump, who could try to fire him at any moment,” said Sean Eldridge, president of the anti-Trump group Stand Up America, in a joint statement. “All members of Congress regardless of party must rally around the bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate that will block Trump from firing Mueller – and make sure the special counsel’s investigation can get to the truth.”

The caution comes with good reason.

To start, the track record for political parties seen to be pushing for the removal of an elected leader for partisan reasons, both in this country and abroad, is not a good one. Republicans paid for their overreach in impeaching President Bill Clinton in late 1998. In June, after yet another special election defeat, Democrats resolved to pivot their program away from 2016-adjacent hang-ups and toward economic policy.

“#Ossof Race better be a wake up call for Democrats - business as usual isn’t working,” Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton tweeted on the night fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a congressional runoff in Georgia. “Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future.”

There is one other variable worth considering. It’s called Vice President Mike Pence. Though Democratic voters are nearly unanimous in their dislike and disapproval of Trump, the prospect of Pence getting a promotion calls up a separate round of concerns.

A recent New Yorker piece titled “The Danger of President Pence,” a deep dive into his political history and ties to the Koch Brothers’ operation, offered some insight into the depth of liberal anxieties.

“Pence, who has dutifully stood by the President, mustering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan, serves as a daily reminder that the Constitution offers an alternative to Trump,” Jane Mayer wrote early on in her story. But what followed – a meticulously woven image of Pence as a more potent (and competent) force for the conservative agenda – quickly went viral and set off at least a few days of conversation about the potential trade-offs that would follow the President’s would-be ouster.

But those discussions existed firmly in the realm of the hypothetical – a place politicians in office famously fear to tread. And there they will remain, until and (a very big) if Mueller and his team go knocking on the Oval Office doors.