Since taking over the House, Democrats have fended off questions about impeachment using a mantra they returned to again and again: let’s wait for Robert Mueller’s report.
On Thursday, with most of Mueller’s report finally public, Democrats hit the pause button again, saying they want to wait for even more material to emerge—congressional testimony from Mueller, underlying evidence that supports his findings, grand jury information—before fully grappling with the question of impeachment.
The report, a 400-plus page document recounting attempts by President Trump to interfere with the Mueller investigation and details of his team’s comfort with Russia interfering in the 2016 election, sent shockwaves through the broader political and legal universe. But the impact was especially acute within the Democratic Party, where members expressed bewilderment over how the party had not developed a cohesive response to a document they’d been anticipating for nearly two years.
Two veteran House Democratic lawmakers said they were caught off guard when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) declared that impeachment should not be in the cards. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” the House’s number two Democrat told CNN. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment.”
The majority leader would later walk back his comment. But his initial missive sparked eye rolls on the Hill, where a senior House Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that the majority leader was “clearly off-message.”
Hoyer’s office did not respond to request for further comment. But his dismissal of impeachment seemed geared towards alleviating fears among swing-district freshmen Democrats who would prefer to keep Mueller news off the front page for fear that it will galvanize Trump voters in the lead up to a general election.
But while Hoyer was giving moderates cover, he was leaving progressives in the party alarmed that such a conclusion had been reached on such a weighty matter just hours after the report was published. Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has invested millions of dollars in a grassroots impeachment movement, said that Mueller’s report represented an implicit test for Democratic leadership.
“Should they choose deliberately not to uphold the Constitution and not to uphold their sworn duty,” he told The Daily Beast, “they [would be] saying we are going against the rule of law. It would be a statement that the rule of law is too much of a pain in the ass to uphold.”
Faced with these dual pressures, most House Democrats were content not to rule out impeachment but to argue, as they have since the Russia investigation began, that more information was needed before making a definitive decision on the matter.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), whose committee would originate any impeachment proceedings, offered a different vision on Thursday, declaring it was “too early to talk about” impeachment without implicitly ruling it out. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a member of that committee, said that Mueller’s report provided a “road map” to begin building up a public record that could launch impeachment proceedings. That road map included calling Mueller and Attorney General William Barr to testify, obtaining underlying grand jury material, and holding as many open hearings with witnesses as possible, Lieu said.
“The purpose of this investigation is to decide whether or not we should impeach the president,” Lieu told The Daily Beast. “If we’re going to do it, we have to do it right, and make sure we get all the evidence, that we do the investigation correctly, and then based on what our investigation concludes, we can as a Democratic caucus make a decision at that point.”
“We need to round out the story,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), also a member of the Judiciary Committee. “We have some very tough legal, political, moral and constitutional questions to confront.” Responding to Hoyer’s comments, Raskin said “no one is ignoring the election” but added “all of us have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law, and we can’t run away from that responsibility.”
Obtaining additional information from the special counsel could take months or even years if tied up in the legal system. Nadler has promised to begin the process shortly by issuing a subpoena for the redacted portions of Mueller’s report. But Democratic lawmakers realize that the clock is ticking. Lieu said they should decide by the end of the year if they are going to pursue impeachment or not.
But the cause of impeachment did get some juice on Thursday from one of the Democrats’ most visible members. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) declared on Twitter that Mueller’s findings prompted her to sign onto an impeachment resolution sponsored by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
“Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. I didn’t campaign on it, & rarely discuss it unprompted,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez. “But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep.”
“It’s almost impossible for a person to not look seriously at impeachment,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), another Judiciary Committee member.
Cohen, who has been one of the chief House advocates for articles of impeachment, told The Daily Beast he understood concerns that it could hurt the party politically but “there is still a responsibility for us in Congress to look at it, and I think there’s several of us who have continued to look at it and consider it, even though the politics of it and the likelihood of a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate is rather dim at the present time.”
—With reporting from Betsy Woodruff