House Democrats conceded Monday that the possibility of impeachment proceedings against President Trump is over, at least for now — marking a dramatic retreat in the wake of the conclusion by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that Trump’s campaign did not conspire with Russia in the 2016 election.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and members of her leadership team agreed in a Monday night huddle that the caucus needs to stop talking about collusion with Russia because it was distracting from their legislative agenda, according to three people in the meeting or familiar with the discussion.
Notably, two Democrats in the room who brought up concerns about the nationwide focus on their high-profile probes — Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) and House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) — are from opposite sides of the caucus: one a liberal, the other from a Trump district.
Both argued that the House needs to megaphone pocketbook issues that won them the majority.
“Based on Barr’s reporting of the Mueller report . . . there’s a sense that there’s less discussion about impeachment,” Cicilline, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said before the leadership meeting. After the huddle, when asked about his comments, he added: “We need to focus on . . . the promises we made during the campaign.”
As the party soul-searches over its next steps following Mueller’s conclusions, top House Democratic investigators immediately channeled their frustration at Attorney General William P. Barr. Barr, a Trump appointee, decided on Sunday that Trump should not face any charges related to obstruction of justice in his attempts to impede the Russia probe — after Mueller said he could not make a decision.
During a Sunday afternoon phone call with Pelosi and House committee chairs, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) argued that Barr, rather than Mueller, should be their most immediate target in the aftermath of the Russia probe’s conclusions.
Some House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had been pushing to call Mueller to the Hill first. But Nadler insisted that because it was Barr’s decision to forgo obstruction charges, he should be their first priority.
Within hours of the call, House Democrats began accusing Barr of bias and protecting the president. Nadler and other House chairs said in a statement that a summary of Mueller’s findings provided to Congress by Barr “may be a partisan interpretation of the facts.” Other Democrats pointed to a 2018 letter Barr penned arguing that the president could not obstruct justice, suggesting Trump chose him to lead the department to shield himself from accountability.
“You’ve got to question the appointment from jump-street,” said House Judiciary Committee member Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), comparing Barr to Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn. “Trump was looking for a Roy Cohn, and that’s not something the public wants to be their attorney general or making objective decisions. . . . They were never going to indict him.”
Mueller’s conclusions on the Russia conspiracy question and Barr’s related decision on obstruction further diminished the hopes of some on the left that Trump might be vulnerable to impeachment for crimes related to Russian election interference. Some Democrats even insisted that impeachment was never seriously on the table.
“I was never for impeachment discussions; that’s like putting the cart before the horse,” said House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who is investigating Trump’s contact with Russia, as well. “It never went through my mind.”
In addition to growing skepticism among House Democrats, two key centrist Republican senators, Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah), also said Monday that any talk of impeachment should be off the table with the delivery of Mueller’s Russia report.
Pelosi had declared this month that she was against impeachment without bipartisan agreement. And Democrats have long considered Collins and Romney must-wins to oust Trump successfully.
“Certainly with regards to Russia, interference or collaboration with the Trump campaign or the president himself, that issue is taken off the table,” Romney, who led a brief anti-Trump insurgency in 2016, told reporters Monday.
Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee and frequent recipient of Trump barbs, said that he agreed with Barr’s findings that the obstruction of justice charge was pointless: “The attorney general pointed out the obvious, which is, if there’s no underlying crime, it’s very difficult to make a case for an obstruction of justice looking into the absence of a crime.”
Collins said she wants to know more about the obstruction issues but argued that Mueller is “so experienced and he conducted such an extensive, in-depth investigation” that his inconclusive finding spoke for itself.
“If he had found the evidence to sustain an obstruction charge, I’m sure he would have said that,” Collins said.
The new developments leave Pelosi with the task of managing less ambitious efforts by Democrats to hold the president accountable and provide fodder for candidates vying to challenge him in 2020.
Some House Democrats suggested Monday that they will double down on a strategy of attempting to cripple Trump with what one aide described as “a thousand cuts” — highlighting what Democrats view as Trump’s abuse of his office as well as policies that repel voters, such as family separations at the border.
Indeed, House Democrats of all stripes agree that they must continue probing Trump, even if they sideline some of the Russia collusion and impeachment discussions. House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), for example, argued to reporters Monday that it’s up to the House to lay out all of Trump’s dirty laundry — then let the voters decide who should run the White House in 2020.
But Democrats will also have to grapple with fresh criticism from the White House and Republicans about their previous rhetoric on Trump and Russia, including claims that now appear exaggerated or overblown in the wake of Mueller’s report, though its details have not been released publicly.
Over the past year, Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and other Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have repeatedly declared that they have seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. On Sunday, for example, Schiff reiterated that message on ABC’s “This Week” just hours before Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings was released, listing “secret meetings in Trump Tower” and other controversial episodes as examples.
But Mueller’s findings have called those allegations — and claims of evidence — into question. Barr’s summary repeatedly stated that Mueller had not determined that Trump or any of his subordinates coordinated or collaborated with Russian officials to sway the 2016 election.
The discrepancies have led top Republicans — from White House official Kellyanne Conway to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — to call for Schiff’s resignation from the panel.
“He ought to resign today,” Conway said of Schiff on “Fox and Friends” on Monday morning. “He’s been on every TV show 50 times a day for practically the last two years, promising Americans that this president would either be impeached or indicted.”
For now, Democrats on the intelligence panel are refusing to back down, even as some of their other colleagues want to move on, at least on the Russia question. Before Barr released Mueller’s findings, Schiff had argued that a lack of charges would not mean there wasn’t “compelling and incriminating evidence” of collusion that the American public deserved to see.
“Our probe in intelligence is much broader than the scope of what special counsel Mueller had to deal with,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), arguing that he did not believe Mueller focused on all the counterintelligence the House panel is trying to scrutinize.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Monday that he was “dumbfounded” by Barr’s summary, suggesting it defied logic.
“Everything’s connected and there’s no coincidence,” said Quigley, a former criminal defense attorney. “So wrongdoing in one field leads to wrongdoing in other fields.”
But in another sign of the impact of Mueller’s report, the House intelligence panel announced Monday that it was postponing a Wednesday hearing with former Trump business associate Felix Sater about his plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — one of the key events Democrats say fell outside the purview of Mueller’s probe.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Democrats should look for the “silver lining” in the Mueller findings.
“It allows us to move some of that to the back burner, not that we relent [on oversight], but it allows us to focus attention on the agenda, which is what we ran on and got elected” on, he said.