Robert S. Mueller III’s public statement Wednesday about his investigation sharply increased pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to open an impeachment process that she has resisted, with several Democratic presidential candidates demanding that Congress act.
Pelosi (D-San Francisco) remained noncommittal, but half a dozen presidential candidates issued demands just minutes after Mueller reiterated that his report did not exonerate President Trump.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. He also noted that the Justice Department policy that forbids indicting a sitting president explicitly refers to alternatives.
“The opinion says the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” he said.
Although Mueller had said the same thing in his report, presidential hopefuls — and some sitting House members — took his repetition of those words in a televised, public statement as an invitation for Congress to begin the impeachment process.
Their comments highlighted the degree to which large parts of the Democratic voter base want Congress to go further than Pelosi has been willing to support.
Pelosi and her allies have concerns that a focus on impeachment would simply help Trump rally his own supporters and would detract from Democratic efforts to gain attention for their legislative agenda. They also fear that since a Republican-majority Senate would almost surely refuse to convict Trump, an unsuccessful impeachment effort would allow him to claim exoneration.
But many other Democratic leaders, including several of the party’s presidential hopefuls, disagree, saying that if the evidence suggests Trump abused his authority or committed criminal acts, Congress can’t refuse to act.
“What Robert Mueller basically did was return an impeachment referral,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who has previously supported impeachment, said on Twitter as she campaigned in South Carolina. “Now it is up to Congress to hold this president accountable.”
New calls for impeachment proceedings came from candidates who had previously not embraced the idea, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
“We have one remaining path to ensure justice is served. It is our legal and moral obligation to hold those who have committed crimes accountable. It’s clear that the House must begin impeachment proceedings. No one is above the law,” said Booker, who had previously called impeachment talk premature.
O’Rourke, who previously said grounds for impeachment existed but left the decision to Congress, responded to Mueller with a more decisive call for Congress to act.
“There must be consequences, accountability and justice. The only way to ensure that is to begin impeachment proceedings,” he said.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and former Obama Cabinet official Julian Castro made the call, too.
Pelosi has accused Trump of a “cover-up,” but has argued that impeachment would be divisive without bipartisan support for the procedure.
After Mueller spoke, she said during an appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco that “nothing is off the table” and indicated that the House’s investigations would continue. But she cautioned that Democrats needed to make a “compelling case” before moving to impeach.
“We want to do what is right and gets results,” she said.
The House leadership and the heads of the committees investigating the Trump administration “continue to consult on a daily, weekly basis … about whether impeachment is warranted, whether an impeachment inquiry is necessary, and at the same time continue to do our investigative oversight work,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
Schiff didn’t exclude the possibility of an impeachment inquiry and suggested that the White House’s refusal to comply with congressional investigations or court orders could “add to the force of the argument” for impeachment.
“Those calls may become irresistible,” he said.
Like Schiff, Pelosi stressed that she is “gravely disappointed” in the Justice Department, including Atty. Gen. William Barr, “for their attitude, for their misrepresentation of the Mueller report.”
Pelosi received important support in her strategy from the Democrats’ 2020 front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who continued to stop short of calling for impeachment proceedings to begin.
A campaign spokesman said Biden believed Congress should continue to investigate.
“Vice President Biden agrees with Speaker Pelosi that no one would relish what would certainly be a divisive impeachment process, but that it may be unavoidable if this administration continues on its path,” spokesman Bill Russo said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also was only lukewarm about moving toward impeachment proceedings.
“If the House Judiciary Committee deems it necessary, I will support their decision to open an impeachment inquiry,” he said.
So far, only one Republican member of the House, Justin Amash of Michigan, and no Republican senators have supported impeachment proceedings.
But impeachment has become all but a litmus test for the progressive left, both among House Democrats and the 2020 field.
A few dozen House Democrats have come out in favor of starting impeachment proceedings soon, including several last week after former White House Counsel Donald McGahn rebuffed a congressional subpoena to testify.
Those who support impeachment make up a small portion of the 235 Democrats in the House. But advocates say they expect momentum to build slowly, and there are signs that Mueller’s statement may have helped.
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a Pelosi ally, came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. So did Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.), a freshman, and Rep. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who previously only left the door open to impeachment, said that the House needs to begin proceedings now.
“Mr. Mueller’s statement that his office could have exonerated Donald Trump but did not is nothing short of an alarm bell above the door of our republic,” he said.
“In addition to continuing our other investigations into rampant corruption throughout this government, Congress must proceed with an Article I inquiry of whether Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice.”
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the question now lies with the legislative branch.
“The message really is, ‘Over to you, Congress,’” he said in an interview with NBC News.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was the first major 2020 presidential candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment, said she was vindicated by the Mueller statement.
“Mueller’s statement makes clear what those who have read his report know: It is an impeachment referral, and it’s up to Congress to act,” she said. “They should.”