Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s brief public remarks Wednesday led more Democratic presidential candidates to call for an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
But concerns remained among House Democratic leaders, as well as Democrats trying to hold their chamber majority in 2020, that going down that road could exacerbate divisions in the country and imperil Democratic electoral prospects.
In an appearance in California, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there needed to be an “ironclad” case to convince Republican lawmakers, especially those in the Senate, who would have to try Trump if he were impeached by the House.
A handful of Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday reiterated their calls for beginning an impeachment inquiry. They were joined by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who had previously stopped short of going that far.
But Democratic strategists who work on congressional races have long argued that health care and the economy — not Russia and Trump — helped the party win the House last fall and will be their path to holding the majority next year.
Republicans are also likely to attack down-ballot Democrats on impeachment, even if they haven’t actually called for that step, much in the same way the GOP tried to tie all Democratic candidates to Pelosi in 2018, even those who had said they wouldn’t support her for speaker.
Spreading the hurt
Given that narrative, movement toward impeachment by presidential hopefuls could be used against down-ballot Democrats in the very states that are so important to those 2020 candidates trying to win the nomination.
In Iowa, for example, where all four House races and the Senate contest could be competitive next year, former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said she did not believe Mueller’s comments changed the political conversation on the ground.
“It simply is not what voters are talking about. They have an opinion on it, they think about it. This is not the focus,” she said in a phone interview. “The questions on the road are health care, they’re income inequality, the middle-class squeeze and the concern about student debt.”
“They are doing their jobs. That’s what they’ll run on,” she said.
The two 2020 Democrats leading the polls have stopped short of calling for an impeachment inquiry. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had not weighed in by mid-Wednesday, while former Vice President Joe Biden said defeating Trump next November was “the surefire way to get him out of office.”
Biden left the door open, however, to moving toward impeachment, noting in a statement that while it would be divisive, “it may be unavoidable if this administration continues on its path.”
In his first public remarks since leading the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Mueller said two things that seemed to be raising the pressure on Democrats — at least from the left — to begin an impeachment inquiry.
First, he said his report speaks for itself and that any congressional testimony would not include additional information. That could give congressional Democrats who had been waiting to hear more from him further cover to call for an impeachment inquiry as the only way to obtain additional information.
And second, he reiterated — on camera, before the American people — two key points from the lengthy report his office released in April: That the investigation did not turn up evidence exonerating Trump and that the Department of Justice cannot charge a sitting president with a crime.
There was no sign that any of Amash’s Republican colleagues were preparing to join him, however, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that it would be up to the president whether he wanted to support one of Amash’s primary opponents. Much as they did when the Mueller report was released, congressional Republicans used the special ’s Wednesday announcement to argue that there was nothing more to see and that Democrats were overreaching.
“Special Counsel Robert Mueller made it very clear that his report is definitive and he has no intention to testify before Congress,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise tweeted. “It is well past time for Democrats to move on from this madness.”
But far from moving on, some 2020 presidential candidates jockeying for support from the liberal base are becoming more vocal on the issue — potentially putting them at odds with down-ballot Democrats running in competitive seats next year.
Booker and Gillibrand joined a handful of 2020 hopefuls who had already called for an impeachment inquiry to begin, including former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all of whom reiterated those positions Wednesday.
Changing the calculus
Although some vulnerable House Democrats started last week to move closer toward wanting to begin an impeachment inquiry, they’ve remained wary, preferring to let challenges to the administration’s actions play out in the courts first and allow congressional committees to exercise their oversight duties.
It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s reluctance to share any more information with Congress will change the calculus from Democrats who have been calling for more investigations and hearings before moving toward impeachment.
Asked about her support for opening an impeachment inquiry last week, for example, New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill answered by saying she wanted Mueller to testify before Congress. She wasn’t alone. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said Mueller should appear before Congress, according to a Monmouth University Poll released last week.
(Sherrill maintained that position in a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying it “remains Congress’ duty to hear directly from the Special Counsel and to further investigate the findings contained in his report, including those matters limited by Justice Department policy.”)
Still, while Mueller’s announcement was dominating news this week, the 2020 congressional elections are more than a year away.
G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said the country is so polarized politically that he did not anticipate any impact on Trump’s approval rating or in congressional races.
“A lot of average voters have moved on from the Mueller report,” he said. “I just don’t know that this is going to materially affect anything.”
Katherine Tully-McManus, Bridget Bowman and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.