Many Democrats long have considered Robert S. Mueller III a potential savior, as the agent of President Trump’s eventual undoing. Wednesday’s hearings on Capitol Hill probably shattered those illusions once and for all. If Democrats hope to end the Trump presidency, they will have to do so by defeating him at the ballot box in November 2020.
In reality, that has been the case for months. Still, scheduled testimony by the former special counsel before two House committees offered the possibility that he would say something that would suddenly change public perceptions and dramatically jump-start long-stalled prospects for an impeachment inquiry. That was certainly the Democrats’ goal. If anything, things could move in the opposite direction.
Regardless of the evidence of obstruction contained in Mueller’s report, impeachment is a fraught strategy for the Democrats, given public opinion and the dynamics in the Senate. After Wednesday, the prospects for impeachment appear more remote, which means it will be left to the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, with the help of the party, to develop a comprehensive case against the president, one that can win 270 electoral votes. To date, that hasn’t happened.
House Democrats have fumbled in their efforts to hold Trump and his administration accountable, despite promises to do so. Presidential candidates are more focused on one another and playing to their internal constituencies than on organizing the brief against the president to take into the general-election campaign. That remains a major challenge as the contest moves forward.
Next week’s Democratic debate in Detroit will offer the candidates a fresh opportunity to begin to frame the election — the case for their party and the case against Trump — as well as to state or restate their views about impeaching the president. With Mueller’s testimony over, the onus will be on them to show the leadership what rank-and-file Democrats are looking for.
Mueller gave the Democrats some things they wanted. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, he rebutted Trump’s claim that he was totally exonerated by the report. Not true, Mueller said. Nor, he told the House Intelligence Committee, was his investigation a hoax or a witch hunt, as the president has claimed. And he seemed to suggest that Trump was not charged with obstruction because Justice Department regulations say that a sitting president cannot be indicted and that a president can be charged after leaving office.
But there was some ambiguity surrounding statements about whether Trump would have been indicted absent those regulations. Before the intelligence committee, Mueller corrected his previous comment, noting that the report did not definitively answer the question of whether Trump had committed a crime.
Meanwhile, the rest of Mueller’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee proved a disappointment to any Democrat who thought that he would take up the role of witness for the prosecution. Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard law professor and impeachment advocate, tweeted Wednesday afternoon: “Much as I hate to say it, this morning’s hearing was a disaster. Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it.”
Mueller proved to be a reluctant — and at times shaky — witness. He had warned the Democrats in a brief public statement when he exited the Justice Department in May that he would not go beyond the written report if called to testify. He barely did that, offering clipped and sometimes confusing responses, almost as much an observer to the proceedings as the star witness.
The hearings Wednesday became what might have been expected: partisan exercises that elicited little, if any, new information. Republicans challenged Mueller about the origins of the investigation and the alleged biases of his team, often without a strong rebuttal from the former special counsel. Democrats read aloud portions of the obstruction section of the report, hoping that a television audience would glean something new.
The hearings underscored the degree to which the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible cooperation with Trump officials has become one more partisan battle.
Even before Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William P. Barr, the inquiry had become thoroughly politicized. Trump systematically worked to undermine the credibility of Mueller, his team of lawyers and FBI agents, and the president’s tweets and statements resulted in an increasingly polarized environment for the findings.
The backdrop for Wednesday’s hearings has changed little over many months. A majority of the country has consistently opposed the idea of impeachment, although a majority of Democrats has supported such an effort. That has generated tensions between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and some members of her caucus.
Pelosi, with an eye on public opinion, has put the brakes on her House colleagues. But the pressure to act began to mount with the release of the Mueller report. Bringing Mueller to testify was designed to shift public opinion and give impeachment advocates fresh momentum, but it was a long-shot strategy, coming months after the report was released and with no sign that public opinion was changing.
At the end of the day Wednesday, Pelosi remained cautious about moving ahead with an impeachment proceeding, noting that there are ongoing court cases in which the House is seeking testimony and documents from a White House that she said is engaged in a “cone of silence” and a “massive coverup.” House Democrats, she said, are continuing to gather evidence. “If we go down that path, we should go in the strongest possible way,” she said, referring to an impeachment process.
But she pushed back against the suggestion that she thinks Republican control of the Senate precludes her from recommending such action. “If we have a case for impeachment, that’s the place we will have to go,” she said.
The barriers to impeachment have always made it a challenging option, given that Republican control of the Senate, to the frustration of some Democrats. But other Democrats were advocating long before Mueller wrapped up his investigation that the party’s focus should be on the 2020 election, rather than impeachment. That now is the only realistic course for settling the question of the future of Trump’s presidency.
The Mueller report will be a part of the election but hardly the only part. It could be as much a motivator for Trump’s base as for Democrats. What Democrats were told Wednesday, again, is that Trump is a president willing to use whatever means necessary to blunt his opposition, as he demonstrated in an aggressively hostile exchange with reporters after the hearings ended. Mueller did not deliver what Democrats had hoped he would. If they hope to win in 2020, it’s now on them to convince the voters.