Mueller Testimony Deepens Democratic Divide on Impeachment

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III’s long-awaited testimony has inflamed divisions among Democrats over impeachment, with some senior lawmakers pushing on Thursday to begin formal impeachment hearings soon, and vulnerable moderates pleading that the party needed to rest its case against President Trump.

Liberal House members who have been agitating for impeachment were buoyed by Mr. Mueller’s nearly seven hours of testimony, asserting, despite modest viewership numbers and no dramatic revelations, that the former special counsel’s words confirmed their case that Mr. Trump had tried to obstruct justice. They showed signs of momentum.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has gradually become convinced that his panel should proceed with impeachment hearings and do so as expeditiously as possible, though he has not stated so publicly, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with his thinking. In a closed room of lawmakers on Wednesday evening after the hearing, he broached the idea that House committees could soon begin contemplating articles of impeachment, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pushed back on the idea of quick action.

On Thursday, four more House Democrats came out for beginning impeachment proceedings, including the highest ranking one yet: Representative Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus. That pushed the total above 90.

“The case for impeachment based on the Mueller investigation has been now publicly crystallized and articulated,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a leading impeachment advocate on the Judiciary Committee. “The evidence is overwhelming: 10 different episodes of presidential obstruction of justice and the Trump campaign’s enthusiastic embrace of the Russian attack on our elections.”

The majority of the Democratic caucus remains skeptical about what it sees as a politically perilous push that would lead to an almost certain acquittal in the Senate and further drain attention from its legislative work. Some moderate Democrats who helped deliver the House majority to the party in 2018 by flipping Republican seats sounded increasingly exasperated.

“While there may be certain parts of it that are distasteful or disturbing, I don’t see the high crimes or misdemeanors,” said Representative Jeff Van Drew, who flipped a seat in southern New Jersey, discussing Mr. Mueller’s findings. “If we just let this overshadow all these other issues for a longer period of time, too long a period of time, we are really endangering the election for the Democrats.”

Democrats had never expected Mr. Mueller to cinch their case against the president, but they did hold out hope that testimony from the man who pursued Russian election interference and possible presidential obstruction of justice for 22 months would clarify their path forward. Those hopes faded by the time the House gaveled in on Thursday, and with lawmakers leaving Washington for a six-week recess, they now appear likely to fester into the fall.

Ms. Pelosi, an impeachment skeptic and a fierce guardian of members like Mr. Van Drew, did her best to keep the House investigations open. She touted the importance of Mr. Mueller’s testimony and urged lawmakers to “do your own thing” when it comes to impeachment. But behind closed doors, she took issue with those arguing that Democrats opposed to opening an impeachment inquiry are failing their responsibilities under the Constitution.

“I do kind of not feel too comfortable when people say, ‘If you care about the Constitution, you would be for impeachment. If you are not for impeachment, you don’t care about the Constitution,’” she said, according to an aide in the room. “Thank you very much, we all do.”

Amid the soul-searching and private discussions, Democrats were preparing concrete steps to continue to build their case that united all corners of the party.

Mr. Nadler’s committee is expected to formally petition a federal judge on Friday to unseal grand jury secrets compiled over the course of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. The material, committee members say, is necessary to understand exactly what Mr. Mueller learned and to allow lawmakers to evaluate the weight of the evidence for themselves.

Perhaps more important to their efforts is securing the testimony of Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel whose testimony sits at the center of Mr. Mueller’s report on Mr. Trump’s attempts to impede investigators.

If it cannot reach a last-minute accommodation with the White House, the House plans to sue Mr. McGahn in the coming days to force his public testimony before Congress and invite a judge to rule on the validity of a claim by the Trump administration that he and other witnesses have “absolute immunity” from congressional requests. If Democrats are successful, a ruling could free up other potential witnesses and kick-start their investigations — impeachment or otherwise.

ImageSpeaker Nancy Pelosi has reiterated in recent days that Democrats should each “do your own thing” when it comes to impeachment.
CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

The lingering divide over impeachment has led proponents to advocate alternatives. Mr. Nadler and other impeachment supporters are exploring how they could lodge charges against the president without officially opening an inquiry. One possibility, according to people familiar with the plan who insisted on anonymity to discuss it, would be for the judiciary panel to move unilaterally to open its own proceeding, without a vote of the full House.

Doing so, they think, would strengthen their hand in the courts and potentially persuade judges to move more quickly on cases like the potential one against Mr. McGahn, while building on any momentum generated by Mr. Mueller.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a pro-impeachment Democrat from Washington State and a member of the judiciary panel, said the hearings cleared a major obstacle to educating the public about what Mr. Mueller had found.

“What became clear today was that this is a groundbreaking moment,” Ms. Jayapal said. “This now has allowed us to break open what was stuck in the Mueller report.”

She added, “I think you’ll see the next steps in the next many days.”

The Democrats to join their ranks on Thursday, in addition to Ms. Clark, were Representatives Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware; and André Carson of Indiana.

“We can’t allow Republican inaction to prop the door open for thieves to steal an election,” Ms. Clark said in a statement. “We must be relentless in exposing the truth, act to protect our national security, and ensure that every eligible American can vote without foreign interference.”

But there were differences even among those who support an impeachment inquiry over the effect of Wednesday’s hearings — which featured as many awkward, halting moments from Mr. Mueller as flashes of clarity. Privately, several such lawmakers said they felt that the hearings had not cleared the bar to persuade the public and that opportunities for doing so were slipping out of reach.

Also influencing some Democrats’ views of impeachment: Republican support for Mr. Trump in the House survived Wednesday’s hearings without any sign of a crack.

“Why would you ever even bring up impeachment after yesterday’s hearing?” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, asked reporters. “That should be put to bed. We’ve watched it, we’ve heard it, we’ve read it. What more can they make up?”

For Democrats skeptical of or outright opposed to impeachment, the extended August recess could prove a fulcrum. Heading home with much of the legislative year behind them, several front-line Democrats said they feared the House’s pursuit of the president, even if justified, had forced them into hard-to-defend votes and had distracted them from the kinds of policy issues, like health care costs and wage growth, they ran on.

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was under intense pressure from voters in his suburban Atlanta district to begin impeachment. But he said he was concerned that moving forward with impeachment proceedings would jeopardize the re-election of swing-district Democrats — the so-called majority makers. He cited Representative Lucy McBath, a freshman who occupies a neighboring district in Georgia.

“Her margin of victory was 1 percent; 60 percent of the people in her district are not in favor of impeachment,” Mr. Johnson said, adding, “You don’t proceed with impeachment without the support of the American people.”

Others in safer seats said they needed to hear what their voters made of Mr. Mueller and the unfolding narrative.

Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, sounded pained as she discussed the choice lawmakers cannot shake. She has withheld support for impeachment because she believes her Detroit-area constituents are far more interested in pocketbook policy changes than an attempt to take down Mr. Trump.

“I think there are pragmatic people that know it is not going to take us anywhere,” she said. But she added, “You can’t let somebody do what he is doing.”

“I am trying to be very measured about this,” she said. “I want to hear what people back home are saying.”

Advertising with us after post

Leave a Reply