Mueller report sets up fresh battle for Donald Trump as Democrats demand answers
Attorney General William Barr had barely finished taking reporters' questions about the Russia investigation when the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee signaled he wasn't even close to satisfied with the answers.
"We cannot take Attorney General Barr's word for it," Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said as he whipped out a letter demanding a hearing with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Nadler's response to the report, amplified by Democrats in the hours that followed, underscored a political reality taking hold as the nation processes the report's meaning: While the exhaustive investigative work in the Russia probe is finished, the shadow hanging over Donald Trump's presidency may never be fully lifted.
Democrats ramped up their rhetoric in the hours after Barr's press conference on Thursday, kicking off a fresh fight over an investigation the White House desperately wants to leave behind. After the report was released, the details of Trump's actions seemed to energize Democrats even though most of the revelations had previously been reported.
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After criticizing Barr, Nadler took a more aggressive tone once the report hit: "The responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the President accountable for his actions."
And then there were the unanswered questions.
Investigators did not find evidence that Trump's conduct in 2016 amounted to conspiring with Russia, but did he attempt to obstruct justice by ordering aides to undermine Mueller? Why did Trump spend two years calling attention to the probe and bashing his own Justice Department if he was confident the report would exonerate him? Why did so many of Trump's aides lie to the special counsel and Congress about their interactions?
Trump under siege
Those questions spurred calls for high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill and even reopened a discussion about impeachment, though Democratic leaders sought to tamp down that talk. As Trump and his supporters hammered the "no collusion" message, Democrats appeared to be getting more aggressive in their demands, not less.
"If you were a bloodthirsty Democrat yesterday you are probably thirstier today," said GOP consultant Scott Jennings.
Trump has spent the better part of two years defending himself against the Mueller probe, an investigation that largely consumed his legislative agenda. The president himself grasped the political implications of Mueller's appointment back in 2017, telling aides at the time that he was concerned the special counsel would "ruin" his presidency and lamenting that "I won't be able to do anything."
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Democrats who accused Trump of playing footsie with Russia, and of trying to kill Mueller’s investigation, most now decide whether to hold politically fraught hearings that some may view as the opening stages of an impeachment inquiry. Consensus appeared to emerge that Barr and Mueller should testify, but there was little agreement after that.
The most likely outcome, many predicted: A long, slow burn.
Oversight or overreach?
Several Democratic leaders threw cold water on the prospect of attempting to impeach Trump but said they would continue to demand answers from the Justice Department and the White House, an outcome that would keep lingering questions from the Russia probe alive through next year's presidential election.
"There's little to be gained by putting the country through that wrenching experience," California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN when asked about the possibility of impeachment.
"Many of us do think the president is unfit for office," Schiff said, "but unless that's a bipartisan conclusion, an impeachment would be doomed to failure."
Yet some Democrats were ready to reignite the issue. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive freshmen from New York with millions of social media followers, tweeted that the details of the report “squarely puts (impeachment) on our doorstep.” The New York Democrat has made clear she wants Trump out of office, but so far has followed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s push to keep talk of impeachment contained.
Mueller's redacted report landed at a precarious time for Trump's presidency, when his support has softened and his legislative agenda has been stymied by a Democratic-controlled House. Four in 10 voters approved of Trump's handling of the job and 54% disapproved of his performance, according to a Monmouth University Poll this week.
But that same poll, conducted before the redacted version of the Mueller report was released, found that only 39% of Americans think Congress should continue looking into remaining concerns related to the Mueller investigation. That finding complicates the impulse among some Democrats to keep pressing the administration for answers.
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"The country also has a right to ask when are you going to legislate and not investigate?" presidential aide Kellyanne Conway said, embracing what is likely to become a White House mantra in coming weeks. “Is this oversight or overreach?"
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani predicted Democratic outrage would eventually die down.
"They didn’t get what they thought they were going to get," he said.
2020 candidates cautious
The growing field of Democratic candidates angling to unseat Trump next year have largely sought to move on from the Russian investigation, and most were cautious in their response to the redacted Mueller report. Several contenders, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, blasted Trump's actions but were tepid when discussing a path forward.
"It is clear that Donald Trump wanted nothing more than to shut down the Mueller investigation," Sanders said. "Congress must continue its investigation into Trump's conduct and any foreign attempts to influence our election."
Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat seeking her party's nomination, called on Mueller to testify. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has splashed onto the national political scene in recent weeks, said the report was "disturbing if not completely surprising" and underscored the need to "change the channel in 2020."
In that sense, the party's presidential candidates are treating the Mueller report more cautiously than Democratic leaders in Congress. Political observers said that is likely because Mueller's findings, after more than two years of Trump in the White House, will probably not change anyone's mind about how they feel about the president.
"Regarding Trump supporters, they aren’t going to move," Jennings said. "Period."