Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday has drawn a near-unanimous response from the Democratic primary field: The case against President Donald Trump is clear – but it’s nothing new.
By early evening, most of the candidates – either in tweets or emails to supporters – had shifted their attention back to the topics dominating the primary: health care, race relations and the economy.
In social media posts and comments to reporters during Mueller’s roughly seven-hour appearance, the Democrats roundly affirmed their belief that Trump had obstructed the special counsel’s probe, a determination, they said, that became apparent months ago, when Mueller’s report was made public.
“We all read the hardcover. The audiobook version was no different,” one aide to a leading campaign told CNN. A top aide to another candidate echoed that, saying Mueller’s testimony would not alter the campaign’s strategy. “This didn’t change anything we have planned going forward,” the aide said.
On the trail, the candidates were anything but united.
Former Vice President Joe Biden attacked Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had called him an “architect of mass incarceration,” over Booker’s record as mayor of Newark.
Biden also targeted Sen. Kamala Harris of California, over her insistence that “Medicare for All” could be paid for without raising taxes on the middle class. And Sen. Bernie Sanders’ team pushed back against Biden’s latest comments about the plan.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s careful testimony quickly turned into an afterthought. By repeatedly referring to his report and refusing to answer questions, Mueller denied Democrats the kind of slam-bang moment likely to alter the dynamics of the presidential race or the status quo in Congress, where House Democrats remain divided on whether to pursue impeachment proceedings.
Even among the 2020 candidates who have been more outspoken in their support for impeachment, the message on Wednesday was familiar: The report on its own should be evidence enough to jolt the Congress into action.
Asked about Mueller’s remark that Trump had not, as the President falsely claimed, been exonerated, Sen. Elizabeth Warren told reporters the contradiction had been plain to see for a long time.
“That was clear in reading his report,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “The day the report came out, I sat down and read it, I read into the night and early into the next morning, and when I got to the end, it was clear to me.”
In a tweet, Warren made her point again: “I read the Mueller report the day it came out. Three things were clear: A hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 election, Trump welcomed their help, and Trump obstructed the investigation into that attack. I agree with (the NAACP, which voted unanimously this week to call for impeachment) — it’s time to begin impeachment proceedings.”
A number of other candidates in Detroit for the NAACP convention sounded a similar line.
“I am very clear,” Harris said. “I am very clear that there are outlined incidents of obstruction of justice, and no matter what this current attorney general and President try to say, the American people are smart enough to know what is and what it is not true.”
Booker also pointed to the Mueller report, saying it “seems quite clear that he spelled out” evidence showing Trump’s efforts to interfere with the investigation.
Booker’s campaign had predicted where the testimony would go just as it started, and Mueller began to takes questions about the legal guidelines some Democrats believe unduly circumscribed his findings.
“As we all tune in to Robert Mueller testifying today, a reminder that @CoryBooker believes that no one is above the law - including the president - and supports reversing the (Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel) guidance,” Booker press secretary Sabrina Singh tweeted early on Wednesday morning. Warren has said the same, pledging in May to “appoint Justice Department officials who will reverse flawed policies so no President is shielded from criminal accountability.”
During his testimony, Mueller frequently pointed to that Office of Legal Counsel policy, which says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. He said that prevented his team from even considering whether to make a determination as to whether Trump had committed one.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, reiterated his support for an impeachment inquiry ahead of Mueller’s testimony but was also quick to note the roadblocks ahead.
“There was more than enough in (the Mueller) report to interpret it as an impeachment referral,” Buttigieg said. “I believe that an impeachment inquiry would bring more facts to light, I also believe the Republican Senate will not act, and so I’m focusing on the best thing I can do about the Trump presidency, which is to defeat in November 2020.”
Onstage at the NAACP forum, Sanders, who has also called for the start of an impeachment inquiry, pointed to what had already been presented in Mueller’s report.
“Look, we know for a fact the President did everything that he could to obstruct the investigation,” the Vermont independent said.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, a pair of Texans who clashed mightily on the debate stage last month in Miami, were in lockstep when responding to the hearing.
“This hearing only confirms the facts: Trump invited an attack on our democracy, obstructed the investigation into it, & made clear there won’t be consequences for launching another,” O’Rourke tweeted a little before noon. “As I’ve said since I was running in TX, he’s unfit for office. Begin impeachment proceedings now.”
A little more than an hour later, Castro said about the same: “Mueller’s testimony today underlined what was already clear: the President of the United States broke the law and would be under criminal indictment if not for the fact that he holds that office. He is not above the law. Congress should begin impeachment proceedings.”
Biden, who has been more cautious on the question, told reporters later in the day during a stop in Michigan that his position hadn’t changed.
“I stand where I did on impeachment,” he said. “I think there are impeachable offenses that the President should be tried for but I think it’s something that the House has to come about in an orderly way so that the American people understand that this is not done for political reasons.”
Daniella Diaz and Jasmine Wright contributed to this report.