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Politics

Impeachment, always a longshot, fades in wake of Mueller hearing

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(Los Angeles Times)

Only two presidents have ever been impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and the odds on President Trump joining that list have always been long. Now, the window of opportunity has rapidly begun shrinking.

About 90 House Democrats have joined the call to open a formal impeachment inquiry. That’s less than 40% of the caucus -- far short of what would be needed to overcome the opposition of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who views the move as politically unwise and likely to backfire.

To significantly change the current path, backers of impeachment needed a dramatic boost out of this week’s hearing with former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. His testimony fell far short of that mark.

NO EXONERATION, BUT NO DRAMATIC MOMENT

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Even Trump would have trouble describing Mueller’s testimony as an endorsement.

As Chris Megerian wrote, Mueller made clear that his investigation had not exonerated Trump. Democrats led him through a litany of acts Trump committed that could have constituted obstruction of justice. Mueller affirmed that, while Justice Department policy bars indictment of a sitting president, Trump potentially could face charges once he’s no longer in office.

Republicans argued that Mueller, as a prosecutor, wasn’t ever in position to declare Trump innocent. That claim rang hollow, however, since it was Trump who had falsely, and repeatedly, asserted that Mueller’s report gave him “complete and total exoneration.”

Most of the rest of the Republican questions during about seven hours of hearings involved efforts to air conspiracy theories, several of which have been thoroughly debunked over the past two years. For those who haven’t carefully watched Fox News, Caroline Engelmayer provided this helpful guide to the GOP talking points.

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Mueller also made clear that the investigation showed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election deliberately to help Trump— something else the president has repeatedly denied.

But Mueller’s one-word answers created none of the television moments that impeachment supporters had longed for. And on the occasions Mueller tried to go beyond monosyllables, he appeared tired, sometimes tongue-tied and not always in command of his material.

Mueller has testified in scores of previous congressional hearings over a long career, and the adjective most often used to describe his appearances then was “commanding.” This time, whether for reasons of age or health, his appearance was faltering.

Some pro-impeachment commentators angrily chastised the media for focusing on Mueller’s performance, rather than solely on what he said. But the only purpose of the televised hearings was performance. Mueller had already declared that “the report is my testimony” and that he would not go beyond its text.

The goal for impeachment backers was to provide a dramatic context that would seize the attention of Americans who had not read the report. By that standard, it fell short.

Mueller’s report was a “bombshell,” but his testimony “was a dud,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), an impeachment supporter, told Jennifer Haberkorn.

The result, as Haberkorn wrote, was to strengthen Pelosi’s hand as House members headed home for the August recess. By the time they return to Washington, attention will have more firmly shifted to the more traditional way of removing the president form office — the next election.

At the start of this year, Pelosi and her lieutenants, like Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff of Burbank, faced a dilemma: Commentators on the left had built up expectations for the Mueller investigation that far exceeded any likely outcome. Many Democratic activists expected to see members of Trump’s family indicted or prosecutors to call openly for the president to be removed from office.

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The evidence, which showed bad deeds, but not necessarily indictable offenses, predictably didn’t measure up to the hype.

For much of the year, Pelosi has taken on the task of slowly letting the air out of the impeachment balloon without overly deflating her party’s activist base. She appears to have largely achieved that goal. If Democrats can defeat Trump next year and keep control of the House, she’ll be able to claim her strategy was a success. If not, many Democrats will rue the lack of an impeachment drive as a lost opportunity.

The one thing that could revive impeachment talk: Trump, himself. The president has shown over and over that he’s at his most reckless when he’s feeling victorious. Over the next few months, he could once again provoke Democrats into pushing to impeach. Absent that, however, the impeachment chapter of the Trump presidency has probably closed.

RUSSIA STILL INTERFERING

One of the few points at which Mueller appeared truly animated during the hearing was when he warned that Russia has not abandoned its efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.

“They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” he said.

So far, however, Congress has done nothing to protect the U.S., as Megerian wrote.

The Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report on Thursday detailing problems with U.S. election security. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has blocked any legislative moves on that issue so far, calling all of them partisan efforts by Democrats.

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Some states have strengthened their defenses against cyberattacks, and federal intelligence agencies seem more focused on the threat of election hacking than they were in 2016. But the danger that Russia, or some other adversary, could act to alter election returns — or simply to make Americans wonder if they had done so — remains.

“I hope this is not the new normal,” Mueller said, “but I fear it is.”

DEBATE 2 PREVIEW: CANDIDATES SCRAMBLING

When the Democratic presidential field convenes in Detroit next week for the second round of candidate debates, it will mark the last hurrah for many of the candidates. The threshold for taking part in the third round of debates, in September, is much higher, as Evan Halper wrote. In the increasingly desperate second-tier, therefore, candidates are scrambling to keep their hopes alive.

Of the roughly two dozen major candidates currently in the race, only about 10 seem on track to qualify for the fall.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, already has qualified, but he’s lost a lot of ground in recent weeks, as Mark Barabak wrote. The issue now, he said, is whether Sanders is old news.

Joe Biden had a rough night in the first round of debates last month in Miami. This time, he says, he’s prepared to confront his rivals. “I’m not going to be as polite this time,” the former vice president said. As Seema Mehta wrote, Biden is aiming particularly at Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, who will flank him on stage next Wednesday night.

Biden announced his criminal justice policy, which aims to sharply reduce the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. As Halper wrote, it’s an effort to address a significant potential weakness.

Indian Americans, a rising political force, have given $3 million to 2020 presidential campaigns so far, Mehta reported. Harris, whose mother was born in India, received a large share, but so did Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is the first Hindu candidate.

Trump, of course, has built his campaign around appeals to fears of immigrants. Matt Pearce, Michael Finnegan, Tyrone Beason and Melissa Gomez looked at how naturalized citizens are reacting as Trump challenges what it means to be American.

CUE THE RED INK

Republicans denounced deficit spending when President Obama was in the White House, but the deficit has soared under Trump with few GOP protests. This week, Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven. T. Mnuchin reached a two-year deal to raise the debt ceiling and increase government spending. The House passed the deal on Thursday, after Trump embraced it. The Senate is expected to follow suit next week.

The deal ends the spending caps that conservatives won during a standoff over the debt ceiling with Obama in 2011, as Haberkorn wrote. Those spending caps were one of the biggest conservative victories of the Obama years, and most Republicans in the House voted against the new spending agreement. But the House leadership has stood with Trump in accepting the deal. So has McConnell.

CALIFORNIA AND THE CARMAKERS

California air regulators reached a climate deal with four automakers, marking a major victory in the state’s fight with the Trump administration over fuel efficiency and emissions standards for new cars and trucks. As Anna Phillips and Tony Barboza wrote, the deal, under which the four companies agreed to meet California standards, split the industry as the administration prepares to roll back Obama-era rules.

UNPREPARED FOR FIRE SEASON?

Peak fire season is near, and the federal government is short hundreds of firefighters, Phillips reported. The shortfall results in part from the long partial shutdown of the government this winter, which hit just as the Interior Department would normally have been recruiting and training seasonal firefighters.

THE COMPLAINER IN CHIEF

Noah Bierman looked at Trump’s long history as the complainer in chief — often finding fault with the U.S. and its leaders. His complaints look different in light of his denunciations of minority members of Congress for lodging their own complaints.

As Laura King wrote, Trump’s attacks on the four congresswomen known as the Squad have brought sharp rebukes.

NO POLICY ON THE HOMELESS

As the homelessness crisis grows in many American cities, the Trump administration has made few efforts to help, Caroline Engelmayer wrote. The Department of Housing and Urban Development under Ben Carson has continued to fund existing programs, but has had little interest in developing new approaches.

ASYLUM CRACKDOWN HITS TROUBLE IN COURT

A federal judge blocked Trump’s restrictions on asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. As Maura Dolan wrote, the ruling by a federal district judge in San Francisco temporarily stopped the administration from enforcing a new policy that would have effectively ended asylum rights for the vast majority of people seeking refuge in the U.S.

At the same time, however, the administration moved to expand quick deportations from anywhere in the U.S., another immigration enforcement step likely to face legal challenge.

In both cases, administration officials are trying to make policy changes through executive actions that they haven’t been able to get Congress to adopt.

HOMELAND SECURITY CUTS

Last week, David Willman reported that the Homeland Security Department had shut down or curtailed several programs that aim to protect the country against terrorist attacks using chemical or biological weapons. Those cuts have attracted attention in Congress.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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