If House Democrats want President Trump held formally accountable for his conduct surrounding Russian election interference, they’ll need to do it all on their own.
Robert Mueller won’t do it. As the former Special Counsel reminded lawmakers on Wednesday, the Justice Department says the Constitution shields sitting presidents from prosecution.
Rank-and-file Americans won’t demand it. Polling shows the public split on whether Congress should impeach Trump, and hours of Mueller’s testimony offered no dramatic revelations with obvious potential to change that.
House Republicans certainly won’t help. GOP lawmakers, who protected Trump from scrutiny when in the majority, focused in Judiciary and Intelligence committee hearings on ripping the investigation rather than exploring what it found.
That leaves Democrats alone with their consciences, their constituents, and their cost-benefit analyses of how impeachment would affect the party’s ability to retain its majority and stop Trump from winning re-election in November 2020. Their diverse 235-member caucus faces tough choices.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists Democrats won’t impeach or duck impeachment on the basis of political consequences. So far, in resisting the impeachment demands of colleagues, she has given every impression of doing exactly that.
History and current circumstances explain her reluctance.
Two decades ago, Pelosi watched a Republican majority stumble through its impeachment of Bill Clinton and then oust Speaker Newt Gingrich. Pelosi’s majority includes 31 members who represent districts Trump carried in 2016 and could face electoral danger. Impeachment might accomplish little more than energizing Trump 2020 voters.
Close Pelosi allies insist she couldn’t gain majority support for impeachment even if she tried, not to mention the two-thirds of a Republican-run Senate needed for conviction and removal from office. “There will never be 218 in the House,” a leadership aide told me.
The damning results of the special counsel investigation weigh against that conclusion – however tersely and haltingly Mueller discussed them before television cameras.
Before concluding his work, Mueller obtained felony convictions against Trump’s campaign chairman, deputy chairman, National Security Adviser and personal lawyer.
He found that Russia criminally interfered in the election to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton, and that Trump’s campaign welcomed it.
He found that Trump associates lied about interactions with Russians before and after the election, and also lied about Trump’s secret ongoing pursuit of a lucrative Moscow real estate deal.
Mueller did not establish a Trump-Russia criminal conspiracy. But he amassed extensive evidence of potential obstruction of justice, and surprised a Republican questioner by saying a future prosecutor could charge Trump with obstruction crimes after his term.
For now, however, only Congress can act.
Fewer than 100 House Democrats advocated impeachment before Mueller’s public testimony. Privately, Democratic lawmakers and advisers doubt the hearings will significantly boost that number.
Not all of them, though. One Judiciary Committee member who questioned Mueller predicted renewed focus on the facts will renew impeachment momentum within the caucus.
“As he did in his 400-page report, Special Counsel Mueller today outlined a series of high crimes committed by President Trump,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who serves in the Democratic leadership, told me. “To not open an impeachment inquiry in the face of such obvious corruption is an abdication of the oath we took to defend our country, uphold the rule of law and hold the President accountable for his misconduct.”
Pelosi sought to placate restless members Wednesday afternoon by suggesting the House might yet explore impeachment after two more developments. One is gaining access to Mueller’s grand-jury material through the courts; the other is obtaining public testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, a key to potential obstruction charges who has privately testified Trump told him to fire Mueller.
Democratic presidential candidates, courting the party’s most zealous activists, will maintain outside pressure. With five months left before 2020, House Democrats don’t have long to decide.
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