Over the course of roughly six hours on Wednesday, Robert Mueller told lawmakers that President Donald Trump had not been exonerated by his report, could be tried for obstruction of justice upon leaving office, was “generally” untruthful or incomplete with written answers he provided, had asked staff to falsify records relevant to his investigation, had offered “problematic” praise for WikiLeaks, and had watched as his team hid potentially critical information from the Special Counsel’s Office.
It was a remarkable if not damning affair, though one that was, at times, overshadowed by Mueller’s hesitancy in engaging on matters and difficulty following the lines of questioning. But it ultimately left Democrats right back in the place they had started: divided, and increasingly bitterly so, over just what they should do about the president.
Mueller’s testimony was supposed to have helped answer the question of whether to jump forward on impeachment proceedings. And in a press conference after the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committee hearings ended, party leadership framed the testimony as a crossing-the-Rubicon moment—an instance, as House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) put it, when people would look back and ask, “What did you do when you have a president who... would throw away the guardrails.”
But Democrats’ ultimate answer to their very own question was still to preach restraint.
“We still have some outstanding matters in the courts,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, when pressed if she would drop her opposition to impeachment in the wake of Mueller’s hearing, which she called an “indictment” of the administration’s cover-up.
“This isn’t endless, understand that,”said Pelosi. “But we have live cases in the courts, cases going forward—it isn’t endless, but it’s strengthening our hand to get that information.”
Though Mueller was criticized by Republicans and even some Democrats for his sputtering answers early on, Democrats began the day privately celebrating the hearings, claiming that they had successfully laid out for the American public the most important aspects of the former special counsel’s report with little interruption.
As the testimony dragged on, however, their mood soured. Aides and lawmakers began to worry that their self-described success during the hearings wasn't likely to translate into tangible momentum in favor of impeachment proceedings. And several Democratic sources told The Daily Beast they doubted Mueller hearings would change Pelosi’s calculus on impeachment. By the end of the day, the expectation within the party was that leadership would continue to fall back on the same strategy of fighting to obtain White House documents and clinch testimonies from former Trump administration officials without launching a formal impeachment inquiry.
“These hearings will likely be the pivotal inflection point which decides whether or not the House pursues impeachment,” said one Democratic aide who works for a judiciary committee member during Mueller’s first hearing. “For that to happen, there needs to be a slam-dunk moment but so far the ball is just bouncing on the rim.”
What investigative tricks the party now has in store was not entirely clear. Mueller’s testimony was supposed to be the crescendo of their oversight efforts. And with other witnesses having ignored Democratic subpoenas—and with document requests being rebuffed or litigated as well—there are few other avenues to pursue. But some Democrats hinted that they would continue to hammer away at the topics that, they argue, Mueller had broached but not fully covered.
“It’s clear he didn’t look at a number of issues, from money laundering—I don't think he saw the tax returns—he did not say he looked at the president’s financial dealings or business ties with Russia aside from Trump Tower Moscow,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), a House Intelligence Committee member. “So these are all to-do’s to make sure that we can protect our country from these national security risks. We’re learning there is potentially more material out there. That’s probably the source of the next step.””
The notion that continued investigations and oversight would be enough to satisfy impeachment boosters seemed dubious, however. And those who have advocated launching a proceeding argued that Mueller’s testimony had more than provided the predicate for doing so.
“Oh please,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), an impeachment backer, when asked about the idea lawmakers needed to hear from more key witnesses like former White House counsel Don McGahn. “There does come a point where waiting for smoke signals and chasing down compliance with subpoenas that people are blowing off in every direction... It does begin to add up to a slow walk and to an avoidance of tough decisions.”
For months, Pelosi has pushed back on opening an impeachment inquiry on grounds that it was both politically premature and problematic. In that vacuum, she has encouraged the Judiciary and Intelligence committees to gain access to the unredacted Mueller Report, its underlying documents, and questioning former officials of the Trump administration. Her posture has prompted sometimes sharp disagreements within the party and Democratic staffers have quietly discussed ways to move forward the impeachment agenda without her blessing, according to two Democratic aides.
The lingering question for the pro-impeachment camp is whether Mueller’s testimony will move Democrats who have not spoken out about the issue onto their team. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Democrats prepared by crafting questions which Mueller could answer in the affirmative, knowing that he would do little in the way of expanding outside the four corners of the report. Lawmakers worked with staffers of their own offices and within the committees to ensure their questions also included page demarcations so Mueller could follow along.
Mueller responded as they predicted. But he notably did not take the bait on several attempts to read from his report out loud—which could have potentially been refashioned into video moments for Democrats to disseminate. And when he did seem to suggest that Trump would have been indicted for obstruction if not for Department of Justice regulations, he quickly dialed that declaration back, saying simply that he couldn’t entertain the idea of an indictment because of those guidelines.
Democratic aides said it was their hope that the media would focus on the substance of Mueller’s report and not the style of his delivery. “But that can only last so long before it’s an actual delay,” one aide said. “The evidence we’ve seen demands that we take action, and a lot of us are waiting to see what that will be.”
Pro-impeachment members, like Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), predicted after the hearing that some colleagues would be moved off the fence. And shortly after the hearing concluded, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA) became the latest to announce that she would support impeachment proceedings. One Democratic lawmaker predicted that maybe three or four total would change their stance because of Mueller’s testimony. But others were dubious that momentum would build much beyond there. One Democratic aide to a Judiciary member said House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) would need to go on TV and say “he wants Pelosi to open an inquiry that will change things” in order to get more members on board. “Short of that, it’s more of the same.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), an impeachment supporter, conceded that the party would need to have “some serious discussions” about where it needed to go next. But, he added, Democrats “undoubtedly” need to make a decision soon on whether or not to open impeachment. “We will have to make a decision about whether or not to launch an impeachment inquiry,” he said. “I have felt from the beginning that we can launch an impeachment inquiry in 2019 but it’s very difficult to do it in 2020.”
While Democrats searched for an agreed-upon path forward after Mueller’s testimony wrapped, Republicans suffered from no such internal strategic splits. President Trump spent much of the work day in his private White House residence, watching and live-tweeting the Mueller hearings, spinning the proceedings as fodder for victory laps. In his Twitter posts, the president quoted Fox News personalities who were doing live commentary on the former special counsel’s testimony, and retweeted several Trump fans and allies attacking Mueller.
Even before the first hearing of the day hit the halfway mark, senior Trump campaign officials were ecstatic and already plotting out new and different ways to message and fundraise off of what they viewed as Mueller’s floundering performance, two sources on the campaign said.
And when The Daily Beast asked Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a top Trump ally, in the middle of the first hearing how he thought it was going, the congressman texted back, “For Democrats?” next to a GIF of a mushroom cloud.