By The Hill
House Democrats hoping that former special counsel Robert Mueller would trigger momentum for impeaching President Trump were met with resistance Wednesday from a witness who often wouldn’t even answer lawmakers’ questions.
Unlike Mueller’s May remarks on his report on Russia’s election meddling, his testimony Wednesday did not spark any new major wave behind the movement to oust the president.
And some of the most vocal impeachment proponents said they don’t expect Mueller’s halting testimony — in which he asked legislators to repeat their questions on multiple occasions and often declined to answer questions at all — to lend any significant new power to the effort.
“I think that there were some persons who were hoping for a seminal moment, a wild moment — a wild, gotcha moment,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas). “It didn’t happen.”
Green, who forced a vote to impeach Trump last week, predicted Mueller’s testimony won’t prompt any meaningful change in public support for ousting the president. Only launching the process, he argued, would bring more people on board.
“I think public sentiment will change significantly once you start the process of impeachment,” he said.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), another impeachment supporter, delivered a similar assessment early in Mueller’s testimony.
“I did not have super high expectations for this testimony, and I would say it’s living up to my low expectations,” Huffman said. “He’s made it clear in every possible way that he’s just not going beyond the words he wrote in his report.”
Trump and Republican lawmakers took a victory lap Wednesday after the hearings, ripping Democrats for refusing to move on from the Mueller investigation.
Still, impeachment backers say they are optimistic that Mueller’s testimony will help sway members of the public who aren’t familiar with the findings of the special counsel’s report. Most Americans, they argue, haven’t read the full 448-page report but may have found it easier to watch Wednesday’s hearings.
“There was no new information relayed today,” acknowledged Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a House Judiciary Committee member who supports an impeachment inquiry. “But it was new to about 99 percent of the American people. So it wasn’t new to anybody who read it. But most people have not read it.”
Mueller did offer Democrats some sound bites. He confirmed that Trump “was not exculpated” by the report’s findings on whether he obstructed justice over the course of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling, despite the president’s claims to the contrary.
Mueller also confirmed, in response to questioning from a GOP lawmaker, that the president could be charged with obstruction of justice after leaving office.
And Mueller testified that Trump’s repeated embrace of WikiLeaks and its distribution of Clinton campaign emails was “problematic.”
“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said.
But Mueller declined or deflected dozens of other questions from lawmakers over the course of his testimony.
At one point, Mueller was forced to revise his testimony. He initially said in response to a question from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) that Trump couldn’t be indicted because of an existing Justice Department opinion saying that sitting presidents cannot be indicted. But Mueller later clarified that his report did not reach a determination as to whether Trump committed a crime.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) co-chairwoman who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats needed Mueller to simply state his findings to counter Trump and Attorney General William Barr’s framing of the report, even if it was largely Democrats reading from the report with Mueller offering terse affirmative responses.
“We knew what was in the report, but we needed Mueller to say it because we needed Mueller to agree this was in the findings of this report,” Jayapal said. “We really needed to reset the table and reeducate people about what was actually in there, which I think happened.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) maintained her position that the House still needs to make a case for impeachment.
“My position has always been: whatever decision we make in that regard would have to be done with our strongest possible hand, and we still have some outstanding matters in the courts,” Pelosi said at a press conference in the Capitol with three top committee chairmen after Mueller’s testimony.
At least one House Democrat came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry on Wednesday following Mueller’s testimony: Rep. Lori Trahan(Mass.). Trahan voted in favor of Green’s impeachment resolution a week earlier.
“Mueller’s message to the American people today was clear: his report did not exonerate the president, and that there is ample evidence that the president broke the law by repeatedly engaging in efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Trahan said in a statement.
More than 90 House Democrats have come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, according to a tally kept by The Hill. But impeachment backers are still mostly progressives and amount to less than half of the 235-member caucus. Only a half-dozen Democrats representing swing districts have joined the push — and even they all hail from districts carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clintonin 2016.
Some of the most liberal impeachment backers said they’re confident Mueller’s appearance will build support for the effort, particularly after lawmakers return home this week for the long August recess and hear the voters’ reaction to the former FBI director’s testimony.
“This was a pretty critical [hearing] for a lot of members who were waiting to see what came out of today. And … going back home this is going to [be] brought up to everybody a lot,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a co-chairman of the CPC. “This is elevating the discussion considerably.”
Jayapal also sounded bullish that more lawmakers would support an impeachment inquiry after hearing from Mueller.
“I just believe that it’s hard to listen to all of that and not believe that that’s not where we should be,” Jayapal said.
However, Huffman suggested that Democrats simply haven’t been aggressive enough in the first place since Mueller’s report was released three months ago to win over public opinion.
“So much of this is baked in, and frankly our caucus hasn’t tried very hard to move public opinion on these issues. We’ve been passive. And we allowed [Attorney General] Bill Barr to seize the narrative in a very effective but cynical and I believe disgusting way. And now we’re trying to play catch-up, as we try to do this Hamlet act about what to do on impeachment. And we just haven’t been very bold or very assertive in any of this,” Huffman said.
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