You won’t hear it said publicly very often, but it’s fair to say that a number of Democrats are frustrated with the Mueller report.
Rather than make a judgment himself, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III handed a mountain of evidence that the president may have obstructed justice to a Congress ill-equipped to deal with that knowledge.
The report’s timing — as an election ramps up that could decide control of Washington — severely complicates any decision Democrats make about whether to impeach President Trump.
And at least one lawmaker who sits on the committee that would undertake impeachment proceedings said that because Congress doesn't have access to the underlying evidence, they don’t have much to work with beyond a redacted report.
“Mueller didn’t do us any favors,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), according to Politico. She added, “He left us bread crumbs to follow.”
The circumstances surrounding how the Mueller report landed add to a sense among some Democrats that what to do next is unfairly on their shoulders, and they could pay the political price for it.
As I wrote Sunday, Mueller left Congress with big, even existential, questions concerning presidential authority, the separation of powers, and the historical imperative to make it clear that presidents should not act this way.
Mueller concludes he doesn’t have enough evidence or authority to recommend charging Trump with a crime but that Congress can do something about it. His report, written in surprisingly engaging language for non-lawyers, points strongly to a conclusion that Congress should do something about it. He uses language like “corrupt” and “control” and explains how Trump tried to block the probe but was saved, legally speaking, by his aides’ unwillingness to carry out his orders.
The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.
The Mueller report
Those are tough issues for lawmakers to wrestle with on their best days, let alone in a divided Congress where realistically, House Democrats are the only ones with the political incentive to act.
Even if Democrats decide to vote to impeach Trump, no one expects Republicans, who control the Senate, to actually hold a trial convict Trump and remove him from office. It’s all up to House Democrats, and the timing couldn’t be worse for them to shoulder such an immense job.
An election is 18 months away, and it’s a consequential one for Democrats. They are trying to hold onto their majority in the House of Representatives, to win back control of the Senate and, of course, to get Trump out of office. There is widespread consensus in the party that launching impeachment proceedings could cost Democrats some or all of their 2020 hopes by turning off voters who want to move on from all things Russia.
But dodging impeachment could forever stain Democrats as the party that had a chance to punish Trump for appearing to break the law and didn’t. What precedent would that set for future presidents, legal experts and pro-impeachment Democrats have argued.
Finally, even if Democrats decide to undertake impeachment proceedings despite all these hurdles, the path isn’t clear. Mueller’s report is redacted by Attorney General William P. Barr to protect grand jury testimony and other sensitive information. A handful of lawmakers could see what’s behind some of those blacked-out lines, but it’s unlikely the full report will be handed over to Congress (at least not without a lengthy legal fight).
That leaves lawmakers with the time-consuming options to retrace Mueller’s steps, likely battling witnesses who were uncooperative for Mueller or to impeach Trump based on the redacted report, which could look circumspect to any voter doubting Congress’s motives. Also, Congress is already busy with a half-dozen other investigations into the president.
Impeachment isn’t supposed to be an easy decision for the lawmakers who decide to undertake it. But House Democrats find themselves in a particularly lose-lose situation now that the Mueller report has landed in their laps.