WASHINGTON ― First, House Democratic leadership told members to wait for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report before calling for impeachment. Now that a redacted version of his report is out, leaders are suggesting more waiting.
At least that was the takeaway from some members Monday night after a caucus-wide conference call to discuss the Mueller report ― the first opportunity Democrats have had to discuss the report on the Russia investigation among the whole caucus privately.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told members that the leadership has no plans to move forward with impeaching President Donald Trump right now but added that Democrats would keep investigating and could always change course if they find something truly objectionable.
Though that tactic would likely mean Democrats never formally move forward on impeachment, Pelosi was eager to push back against some Democrats who seemed to argue that the caucus should just drop the issue.
Pelosi directly countered a speech from Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), after he argued that Democrats should be looking at polling and the political effect of any decision to move forward on impeachment. Pelosi said Democrats weren’t taking impeachment off the table and would be accelerating their investigations.
Still, Democrats are unlikely to uncover anything more objectionable than what Mueller has already laid out. And with the 2020 campaign already underway, there will be considerable political pressure for Democrats to pass on impeachment, particularly as elections get closer and moderate Democrats worry about a potential backlash to such an effort.
But in threading the needle of her caucus, Pelosi was adamant that Democrats aren’t ruling out impeachment and are moving forward with aggressive oversight ― just not articles of impeachment. She said they would investigate Trump just as fast “without drafting articles.”
“We don’t have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts,” Pelosi said, according to a readout of the call.
She added that if impeachment was the “place the facts take us, that’s the place we have to go.” But she was also careful to note that Democrats aren’t moving forward with impeachment at the moment.
While Pelosi’s middle-of-the-road approach seemed to please many members, it did draw some questions.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) argued that the burden of whether to impeach or not had shifted. She brought up a talking point that Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has adopted in recent days and repeated on the call Monday ― that the evidence laid out in the Mueller report is far more serious than anything the nation saw during the Watergate hearings in the Nixon administration ― and she said those pushing for caution should have to argue why Democrats should not move forward now.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) also argued on the call that the “script has flipped,” he told HuffPost.
“All of the political downside we heard about impeachment before the Mueller report now cuts the other way,” Huffman said after the call.
“Frankly, we need to be talking about how bad for the country it would be to defer our constitutional responsibility given what has landed in our lap,” he added.
But Huffman also told HuffPost that he was pleased by Pelosi’s calls for even more rigorous oversight and didn’t think she was dismissing the possibility of impeachment.
“Frankly, we need to be talking about how bad for the country it would be to defer our constitutional responsibility given what has landed in our lap.”
Instead, the call seemed to be an opportunity for Democrats to touch base and get on the same message: that the next steps are urgent, they need to be aggressive and, if they lead to impeachment, so be it.
According to a member on the call, that was the “fairly consistent message” from the chairs as well.
The chairs who spoke laid out how they were moving forward with investigations, and they were careful to not take anything off the table. Even chairmen who seemed reticent about impeachment spoke in support of the current strategy. Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who cautioned Democrats against talking about impeachment too quickly, supported more investigations, as did Financial Services chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who noted that she’s been a proponent of impeachment from nearly the very beginning.
Waters said she was not politically mobilizing behind the impeachment effort and was instead focused more on the oversight of Trump’s financial issues that she and her committee could do.
Committees are moving toward more aggressive oversight. Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn on Monday, and the Ways and Means Committee is now working to get its hands on Trump’s tax returns for the last six years.
Democrats are also expected to call on Mueller to testify about his report, as well as Attorney General William Barr on his misleading summary, and they are looking at additional subpoenas and investigations after the report laid out 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice and evidence that the Trump campaign did accept assistance from Russian affiliates.
But it’s unclear what Democrats could uncover from their own investigations that’s more damning than what is in the Mueller report. While Pelosi is deftly managing expectations of the caucus, the practical result of more waiting is likely to be that Trump never faces a serious impeachment effort.
And other members of Democratic leadership seem even more hesitant than Pelosi’s continued wait-and-see approach.
Just hours after the redacted version of the Mueller report was released Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CNN that impeachment was “not worthwhile at this point.”
“Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment,” Hoyer said.