Robert S. Mueller III did little on Wednesday to boost the prospects of impeaching President Trump.
The former special counsel’s highly anticipated testimony before Congress did not deliver the sort of splashy moment that circulates on cable TV. Instead, as he promised, Mueller stuck carefully to the text of his investigative report, occasionally — at times haltingly — offering a nuance, but often providing one-word answers to questions.
The result seemed likely to do little more than harden the opinions held by the public — and lawmakers — on President Trump and whether he should be removed from office.
Even Democratic supporters of impeachment were openly disappointed that the hearing did not deliver fireworks.
“The Mueller report is a bombshell — it’s deeply incriminating,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who supports beginning an impeachment inquiry against the president. “The Mueller testimony was a dud.”
For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), that result may come as a vindication. Despite pressure from some Democrats, Pelosi has held her caucus back from starting an impeachment inquiry out of concern that it could potentially backfire without broad, bipartisan support and overwhelming evidence.
“It’s been a pretty interesting day, a historic one, in fact,” Pelosi said at a news conference several hours after the testimony ended. The hearing marked “a crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness” of what Trump did, Pelosi said.
But she notably did not endorse moving to open a formal impeachment process.
“We still have some outstanding matters in the courts,” she said, adding that if the House pursues impeachment, it “would have to be done with our strongest possible hand.”
Some supporters of impeachment had been hoping that Mueller would deliver a TV moment that would generate bipartisan outrage in a way that his dense, 448-page report had not.
As the hearing wrapped up Wednesday, the minority of Democrats who want to begin impeachment proceedings — roughly 85 of the 235 House Democrats — gained one new compatriot, freshman Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts. It is doubtful they gained many more.
“We’ve established substantial evidence that the president committed obstruction of justice multiple times. What the American people choose to do with that, we’ll see in the coming days,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said after the hearing.
The taciturn Mueller carefully avoided moments that could be used for partisan advantage. He turned down requests to read key passages from his report aloud. And he issued a correction in the afternoon to one of the Democrats’ biggest coups of the morning.
He initially told Lieu that he hadn’t charged the president with a crime because of a Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, implying that but for the policy, he would have brought charges. He later said that he misspoke: “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime,” he said.
Impeachment supporters had viewed Mueller’s testimony as the best — perhaps last — major opportunity to change public opinion, which so far has opposed having the House open an impeachment inquiry.
Within days, lawmakers will leave Washington for their summer break, probably muting impeachment talk until the fall. By then, the 2020 presidential race is likely to take its place as the top political story.
Democratic lawmakers did land several wins on Wednesday:
Mueller acknowledged that he did not exonerate Trump regarding potential obstruction of justice. He also affirmed several key findings of the report as lawmakers walked him through instances in which the report demonstrated that the president tried to obstruct justice.
To that extent, the hearing probably will help keep Democratic partisans fired up. But converting voters who do not already have a strongly held view on impeachment was always going to be a much tougher task.
Democrats who support impeachment said they would “take stock of the situation” after the hearings.
“Obviously there are many members of Congress who read the report back when it came out who felt there was sufficient evidence even in the redacted version to launch an impeachment inquiry,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “That is one very logical way to go.”
Some impeachment supporters said they hoped Mueller’s testimony — as low-key as it may have been — could serve as the penultimate chapter before the start of a formal inquiry.
“We can no longer point to some forthcoming Mueller testimony or some report that we need to see. We now have all the facts necessary to make a decision on where we go on this,” Huffman said.
“I don’t know any other way to light my hair on fire. I feel very strongly about this issue. I just need a few dozen more colleagues to get there.”
Pelosi has argued that pursuing impeachment without bipartisan and broad public support would be fruitless and perhaps even embolden the president. Even if the House impeached him, he would not be removed from office unless two-thirds of the GOP-controlled Senate agreed to do so, something that currently seems a political impossibility.
Republicans, for their part, declared victory, citing Mueller’s slow responses at times to rapid-fire questions from lawmakers.
“No one could have watched the hearing and walked away believing that Director Mueller had a firm grasp of the details of the 448-page report,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “It’s probably predetermined where the Democrats want to go with this, but at the same time, I think the American people will see it as time to turn the page, close the book, finish the chapter, and get on with life.”
Trump loudly seconded that sentiment.
“The Democrats had nothing and now they have less than nothing,” he told reporters at the White House before leaving for a fundraising event in West Virginia. “I think they’re going to lose the 2020 election very big, including congressional seats, because of the path that they chose.”
Times staff writers Chris Megerian and Caroline S. Engelmayer contributed to this report.