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Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report declined to either charge or exonerate the president on obstruction of justice. As a result, some say, Congress is now responsible for that determination – a situation that has set off an internal debate among Democrats over how exactly to proceed.
The report’s many unflattering details about President Donald Trump have led to renewed calls for impeachment from the party’s liberal base. But House Democratic leaders appear wary of engaging in an exercise that would almost certainly not result in Mr. Trump’s removal from office and could provoke a political backlash. For now they are focused on investigating. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has asked Mr. Mueller to testify next month and on Friday issued a subpoena for a nonredacted version of the report.
“It’s really up to Congress … to investigate the question of whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice,” says Ken Hughes, a presidential expert at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“That’s their duty,” agrees John Yoo, a former Department of Justice official under President George W. Bush. “If they don’t want to do it, that’s a judgment itself.”
One day after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report, the focus is shifting to Capitol Hill, with many observers suggesting it’s now Congress’s duty to pick up where the special counsel left off.
“It’s really up to Congress” – and not a special counsel, who works for the executive branch – “to investigate the question of whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice,” says Ken Hughes, an expert on presidential abuse of power at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, “just as it investigated whether Nixon committed it and whether Clinton committed it.”
“That’s their duty,” agrees John Yoo, a former Department of Justice deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush. “If they don’t want to do it, that’s a judgment itself.”
Mr. Mueller’s report made clear a number of things: Russia tried to influence the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump and his campaign knew it and benefited from it. At the same time, the evidence reviewed by the special counsel did not establish a criminal conspiracy or coordination between the two.
“He’s closed the book on that chapter,” says Mr. Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Yet the report also seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. Most prominently, Mr. Mueller left open the matter of obstruction of justice, pointedly refusing either to charge or exonerate the president.
Attorney General William Barr took Mr. Mueller’s wording to mean that there was not enough evidence to prove the president obstructed justice –end of story. Others, however, read the report as shifting the responsibility for making that determination from the realm of criminal prosecution to that of political oversight.
“Congress should take the next steps,” says Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a Washington-based government watchdog.” The subpoena and other mechanisms in their toolkit should be used to the greatest extent of their ability.”
In other words, Mr. Mueller put the ball in Congress’ court, for better or worse. And that has set off an internal debate among Democrats over how exactly to proceed.
The ‘Mueller fatigue’ factor
Already the report’s ambiguous conclusions and many unflattering details about the president are leading to renewed calls for impeachment from the party’s liberal base.
But House Democratic leaders appear wary of engaging in an exercise that would almost certainly not result in Mr. Trump’s removal from office, given his strong support from Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate. They worry it could provoke a political backlash after two long years of investigation, with many voters possibly experiencing “Mueller fatigue.”
Some argue the party would be better off keeping the focus on kitchen-table issues, like health care, that worked to its advantage in 2018.
“Going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told reporters shortly after the report’s release on Thursday. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment.”
But later – after his remarks drew a torrent of criticism from the left – Mr. Hoyer clarified in a tweet that “all options ought to remain on the table,” saying “Congress must have the full report & all underlying evidence in order to determine what actions may be necessary.”
Republicans have generally sided with Mr. Barr, saying the report should mark the end of Democrats’ pursuit of Mr. Trump.
“If we’ve learned anything over the past two and half years of RussiaGate, it’s that Democrats will not accept any result short of removing the president from office,” writes Joe diGenova, a former U.S. attorney and conservative legal analyst for Fox News. “No amount of legal exoneration will stop the political witch hunt.”
“It’s time to move on,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asserted.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, see the report as a kind of roadmap for Congress. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said as much in a press briefing Thursday. His committee has already asked Mr. Mueller to testify on May 23 and has authorized subpoenas for five White House officials mentioned in the report.
On Friday Mr. Nadler issued a subpoena for a full, nonredacted version of the report, though the Justice Department has said that it will provide leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees a less-redacted copy in coming days.
Still, some observers say even extending the investigations might be politically risky, particularly if Democrats fail to turn up anything more conclusive.
“[Even] if they call Mueller in to testify, I’m not sure what he could say that would be new or helpful,” says Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace Law School in New York City.
Perhaps better, he says, to wait on the state and federal investigations looking into Mr. Trump’s finances and The Trump Organization’s business dealings. In his report, Mr. Mueller mentioned referring 14 potential crimes – 12 of which have not been made public – to other offices, saying they were beyond his jurisdiction.
Until this point, Democratic leaders have managed to keep calls for impeachment from the party’s left wing at bay. But the pressure is starting to mount.
On Thursday, influential freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., threw her support behind the impeachment resolution that Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan introduced last month. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, renewed his own repeated calls to remove the president.
On his progressive podcast Pod Save America, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau said the fact that a Republican Senate would be unlikely to convict the president on impeachment charges should not prevent Democrats in the House from doing everything they can to publicly hold the president to account.
“Let’s, I don’t know, provide the American people with all the evidence, all the testimony, all the underlying documents, all the witnesses – everything they need to make a determination about whether the president is fit for office or not,” he said.