After being built up for months, former special counsel Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated testimony Wednesday does not appear to be the turning point that will take Democrats – and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – down a path toward impeachment.
That doesn’t mean impeachment is off the table. House Democrats are now pivoting to their court cases in an effort to obtain the special counsel’s grand jury evidence and force Mueller’s key witnesses to testify, which they say will give them the information they need to make a decision on impeachment.
But Democrats ahead of the hearing had hoped that Mueller would bring his report to life – that even if he stayed within the confines of the report, he would help illustrate to the public the misconduct the investigation had documented. Instead, Mueller’s constant one-word responses and decision not to engage on a multitude of issues even within in the report prompted Trump and Republicans to declare victory Wednesday and call for Democrats to move on.
Just minutes after Mueller’s testimony concluded Wednesday, House Democrats debated their next steps internally at a caucus meeting, where lawmakers pressed leadership about impeachment and the process with moving forward with an inquiry, according to multiple sources.
Pelosi continued to reiterate that it’s not time to begin impeachment proceedings, but she told her caucus she wasn’t taking it off the table, the sources said, and that she respected their decision to say what they wanted on impeachment and do what’s best for their districts.
Publicly, Democrats called the Mueller hearings an important step on Wednesday, where the special counsel explained that his investigation did not exonerate the President, detailed how his actions toward Russia and WikiLeaks were problematic, and outlined what they see is a clear case of obstruction of justice, even if Mueller would not say so explicitly.
“For people who are not (familiar with the report), this should have blown their minds,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who backs an impeachment inquiry.
“I think it was groundbreaking,” said Washington Rep Pramila Jayapal, a key liberal voice on the Judiciary Committee who favors an impeachment inquiry, adding that she thought Mueller had moved the needle for the public and her own caucus.
Others were less sure that public opinion would shift.
“I’m not sure if (Mueller) changed the dial on impeachment,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Judiciary Democrat who also favors impeachment. “I think it’ll depend on how the public views what they saw today.”
On the campaign trail, Mueller’s appearance quickly turned to an afterthought, as the 2020 Democratic hopefuls said his testimony confirmed old truths about the President and then largely pivoted to other issues.
At a news conference flanked by the chairmen who ran Wednesday’s hearings, Pelosi called it a “historic” day.
“It is a crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness of what happened,” she said.
But the speaker also added that she wasn’t ready to move on impeachment yet.
“We want to have the strongest possible case to make a decision as to what path we will go down,” the speaker said. “The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the President off the hook.”
There are now more than 90 House Democrats publicly calling for the House to begin an impeachment inquiry, but Mueller’s testimony did not create thus far a groundswell of new converts.
Republicans and Democrats looking forward
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a freshman from a New Jersey swing district, said he’s not ready to jump on impeachment train. “While not everything is perfect, it’s sort of time to work on other issues,” Van Drew told CNN.
“I’m not there yet in terms of the impeachment,” said Rep. Lou Correa, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “But I am energized in terms of continuing to investigate.”
Correa told reporters it was important that the public heard from Mueller that the special counsel did not exonerate the President. He said it would be “good politics” for him in his district to call for an inquiry but he wants to gather more information and evidence.
Republicans said they were thrilled Mueller’s hearings, arguing Wednesday demonstrated it was time for Democrats to end their Trump probes. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called it a “death rattle” for impeachment.
“It would be the best advice for these Democrats to put the American public first and move forward to the issues that we can solve,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Democrats’ next step in the investigations into Trump is to file two key lawsuits for the Judiciary Committee: to obtain grand jury information from the Mueller report and to force former White House counsel Don McGahn and other witnesses to comply with their subpoenas.
That process will move slowly, however. The House voted to authorize those court actions more than a month ago, and once the suits are filed they will inevitably have to run their way through the court process just as the House counsel has fought Trump over subpoenas to Trump’s banks and accounting firms.
The month-long August recess also looms at the end of the week, where lawmakers will leave head back to their districts and away from any momentum that could be generated inside Washington for impeachment out of Wednesday’s hearing.
But Democratic lawmakers and aides also suggested that many lawmakers on the fence wanted to wait to hear from their constituents back home before making a decision, and the list of Democratic backers of an impeachment inquiry could yet still grow during the August recess.