Top congressional Democrats said Thursday that President Trump sought to obstruct justice in trying to undermine the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and promised a thorough investigation. But party leaders — and even 2020 presidential candidates — stopped short of calling for impeachment.
Still, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s signal in his report that Congress should decide whether the president broke the law is certain to embolden liberals who favor impeachment to pressure party leaders and White House hopefuls.
In his report, Mueller not only identified 10 episodes of potential obstruction by Trump, but also said it wasn’t his role to reach a conclusion, putting the onus on Congress if lawmakers are worried about “corrupt use of his authority.”
That was the reason Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) signed on to an impeachment resolution Thursday after the report’s release and Democratic donor and billionaire Tom Steyer renewed his call for Congress to impeach Trump.
For now, they are outliers, at odds with congressional leaders and several candidates.
“The report indicates that President Trump tried on multiple occasions to obstruct justice, only to be thwarted by advisers who knew better,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), striking a tone many Democrats hit throughout the day. “These include efforts to halt the special counsel’s investigation.”
Hoyer, however, later told CNN that “based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment.”
Presidential candidates hoping to face off against Trump next year accused the president of misconduct but also steered clear of impeachment talk. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who often spurns the establishment’s caution, made no mention of impeachment.
“It is clear that Donald Trump wanted nothing more than to shut down the Mueller investigation,” Sanders said. “While we have more detail from today’s report than before, Congress must continue its investigation into Trump’s conduct and any foreign attempts to influence our election.”
The caution underscores Democrats’ long-standing skepticism that they could and should impeach the president, reflecting the party’s view that the best chance to oust Trump is in next year’s presidential election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she opposes moves to impeach Trump, arguing that though he is unfit for office, he’s “just not worth it.” She casts impeachment as a political move that would be too divisive, while other Democrats worry that it would energize Trump’s base voters and cost Democrats in the 2020 election.
Pelosi has also called for the impeachment process to be bipartisan, and with Republicans almost uniformly claiming victory for Trump on Thursday, the possibility is highly unlikely.
“No collusion! No obstruction!” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee. “Complete cooperation from the president. No executive privilege asserted.”
In a statement Thursday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Attorney General William P. Barr of distorting Mueller’s report, reflecting a Democratic strategy to focus on Barr as they read the redacted report.
Barr, at a news conference before the report’s release, said Trump had broken no laws and even adopted the president’s language of “no collusion.”
“Special Counsel Mueller’s report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn’t apply to him,” Pelosi and Schumer said. “But if you hadn’t read the report and listened only to Mr. Barr, you wouldn’t have known any of that because Mr. Barr has been so misleading.”
On Thursday, Democrats latched onto Mueller’s report to argue the special counsel never intended for Barr to make a decision on obstruction but wanted Congress to take up the question.
“The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Judiciary Committee chairman. “The responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions.”
Mueller, while noting that the president has a “constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws,” said “the separation-of-powers doctrine authorizes Congress to protect official proceedings, including those of courts and grand juries, from corrupt, obstructive acts regardless of their source.”
“With respect to whether the president can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” the report said.
Members of the Judiciary Committee seemed torn on the question of impeachment Thursday, saying it was clear the president tried to obstruct justice but also knowing their party was wary of such a step.
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) argued that impeachment is but one of the functions of Congress, which is also responsible for passing legislation, particularly Democratic priorities of tougher gun control and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
“We have to be playing offense for the American people at the same time that we are defending ourselves from a lawless White House; that’s challenging for us,” he said. “In Congress, we have to look at it both: [impeachment’s] legal meanings but also its political context because we do have other agendas we have to be advancing for the American people.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said he believes Trump has “committed impeachable offenses” and “should be impeached”— but he also deferred to Pelosi on the matter.
“I also think that Nancy Pelosi is the leader of our party, and she’s got the best political head of anybody in the House . . . and her position is, politically, you keep your eye on the prize, and that prize is a Democratic president in 2020,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding impeachment, Democrats promised to continue investigating the president. Nadler, who notably did not rule out the possibility of impeachment proceedings during a news conference Thursday afternoon, insisted that Mueller should testify “no later than May 23” before his committee.
Barr is also scheduled to testify before the Senate and House Judiciary panels in early May.
Nadler also announced his intention Thursday to subpoena the full Mueller report, setting up a major legal clash between Congress and the Justice Department as Democrats try to obtain redacted information.
Barr has promised to make the full contents of the report, absent grand jury information, available to a select group of committee leaders and senior lawmakers. Congressional Democrats have long insisted that Barr should seek a court order to release the grand jury materials to lawmakers; Barr has refused.
That’s one of the many reasons Democrats have made Barr a top target for their ire, with presidential candidates joining congressional Democrats in criticizing the attorney general.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) called for Barr to resign. Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary panels, wrote that “no one is above the rule of law . . . unless you’re frustrated that is,” referring to Barr’s rationale for Trump’s actions.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) tweeted: “The American people deserve the truth. Not spin from a Trump Appointee.” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called the news conference “a disgrace.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) released a video through her Twitter feed, requesting that Americans have the chance to hear “from Mueller himself.”
A few minutes after Barr wrapped up his comments, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) tweeted, “It’s a disgrace to see an Attorney General acting as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist for the President of the United States.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the news conference was “propaganda” and “a complete farce.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said Barr “is acting more like Trump’s defense attorney than the nation’s attorney general. His news conference was a stunt, filled with political spin and propaganda. Americans deserve the unvarnished truth. We need special counsel Mueller to testify publicly in Congress.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.