Pelosi’s impeachment blockade faces biggest test yet: Mueller – POLITICO
No one will be watching Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday closer than Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The former special counsel’s appearance is viewed by both supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump’s impeachment as a tipping point in the debate that’s roiled Democrats — and which Pelosi has spent months working to stifle.
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For Democratic leaders, a mostly unspoken but widely understood goal since taking back the House has been to shepherd the caucus into the August recess without launching impeachment proceedings. They now have to hang on just three more days.
Backers of the push to oust Trump don’t necessarily disagree. They see Mueller’s appearance as their best shot to deliver a jolt of momentum to the effort — or watch the steadily growing support for impeachment sputter out over the six-week break.
When asked if Mueller’s testimony was a crossroads in the impeachment debate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told POLITICO: “It could be.”
“It’s like John Dean’s testimony,” he said of the White House counsel under President Richard Nixon who blew the Watergate investigation wide open. “It came up that there was a recording — but nobody knew that was going to happen before the hearing.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who has recently come out in favor of starting the process to impeach, said Mueller’s testimony is the “turning point that we know we have right in front of us.”
“The fact that it’ll be Mueller himself, in his own words, contextualized by the questions that are being asked, it could move some members that had been leaning toward impeachment.”
Mueller’s reluctant testimony — forced via a subpoena after months of negotiations with senior lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels — is the most highly anticipated event in Democrats’ sprawling campaign to investigate every aspect of Trump’s administration, financials and personal life.
Publicly, Pelosi this week said little about the hearing. At one point on Tuesday, she threw her hands up when asked what her message to the caucus was ahead of Mueller’s appearance. She later told reporters she was looking forward to “the truth” from Mueller’s testimony.
“I have a busy schedule because we have a legislative day job here, but I’m going to watch as much as I can in my office,” Pelosi said. Pelosi didn’t raise the Mueller hearings at private leadership meetings Tuesday night, according to multiple sources.
Still, in private, Pelosi has been preaching caution in the run-up to Muller’s appearance, recently urging members in a closed-door meeting neither to “hype” or “underplay” expectations, according to multiple sources. Let Mueller himself do the job of making the case against Trump to the American public, Pelosi said.
“It is valuable as he presents … It is devastating, it is pointing out how the president has obstructed justice really so many times,” Pelosi told Democrats, according to a source in the room.
“This coming election, it is really an election that the fate of this country is riding on. This presidency is an existential threat to our democracy and our country as we know it,” she added.
The pro-impeachment wing has long believed Mueller’s testimony could be a trigger for dozens more of their colleagues to come out in support, who they say have been holding out for the special counsel to appear on Capitol Hill. If they can win over roughly 28 members, impeachment backers will make up a majority of the 235-member Democratic caucus — which some members see as a key threshold for leadership.
“I think virtually every Democrat wants to be in favor of impeachment, and I think the hearings should help a lot of members get there,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a vocal supporter of ousting the president.
“I think they all know the president has committed impeachable offenses, and they want to be able to take a position that holds him accountable,” Yarmuth said.
Impeachment backers have been trying to keep the appearance of momentum, with a trickle of Democrats coming out in support every few days in June. And the effort received an even bigger boost last week when 94 Democrats joined Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) in supporting his unsuccessful motion to impeach Trump.
But Pelosi and other senior members of the caucus may never be won over. They still see impeachment as bad politics and a doomed endeavor they fear could cost them control of the House, especially since the GOP-controlled Senate would never impeach Trump. And public polling on the issue continues to back them up.
Even if a majority of the Democratic caucus decided to endorse the idea after Wednesday’s hearing, it’s unlikely to persuade Pelosi, who has said she’s unwilling to move ahead without broad bipartisan support.
“I expect a few more members to jump on the impeachment inquiry bandwagon. It’s not going to make any difference though,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who recently came out in favor of launching an inquiry. “This is a historical, legacy issue for [Pelosi]. A bunch of members going one way or another isn’t going to make a lot of difference.”
“The speaker is thinking about the country and about history. She’s not counting votes on this. Not yet,” Himes said.
Senior Democrats are gambling that after the August break, when the spotlight shifts more toward the presidential contest, many of their members will be less interested in forcibly removing Trump and instead will focus on beating him at the ballot box.
For impeachment skeptics, if 2½ years of Trump controversies isn’t enough to sway the public, Mueller’s tightly controlled appearance is unlikely to do so, they argue.
“People are pretty dug in not just on Trump and Russia but they’re just dug in on this president,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, said during an interview at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday.
“If that appalling display of racism over the last two weeks wasn’t enough to move people, is there anything that Bob Mueller can say that will?” he asked. Mueller is set to testify before Schiff’s committee Wednesday, as well as the House Judiciary Committee.
Democrats widely acknowledge that an impeachment push would likely have to take place this fall, if it were to happen at all — posing far more of a political risk in an election year.
Pelosi and her deputies have tried to appease antsy Democrats by pointing to the half-dozen committees actively pursuing investigations into Trump and the legal victories they’ve already secured, including successful subpoenas seeking the president’s financial records.
But privately Pelosi has sparred with some members of her leadership team — and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — over what they view as efforts to slow-walk the impeachment push and run the clock out until it becomes politically untenable given the looming presidential election.
At least twice, Nadler has privately pressured Pelosi to let his committee open an impeachment inquiry against Trump, only to be rebuffed.
The hearing may veer into the topic of impeachment but it’s unclear how much Mueller will indulge Democrats looking for him to expand beyond what he has already said. In his only public statement on the report in May, Mueller seemed to signal it was up to Congress to hold Trump accountable for obstructing justice, given the Justice Department’s long-standing policy of not indicting a sitting president.
Still, some rank-and-file Democrats are privately counting on Mueller’s made-for-TV moment and believe it could be the best — and possibly last — chance to win over members who have so far been silent. That includes dozens of Democrats in safe, deep-blue districts who some pro-impeachment supporters expect will ultimately come out in support.
But Mueller’s dual appearances will present a unique challenge to Democrats. Even some of the caucus’ pro-impeachment supporters acknowledge publicly that Mueller’s testimony may not lead to bombshell moments and have sought to tamp down expectations.
Mueller has said he will not go beyond the scope of his nearly 450-page report and DOJ relayed to the former special counsel this week that they expect him to stick to those parameters.
More than half of the Democrats on the Judiciary panel have come out in favor of impeachment. But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who sits on the committee, insisted impeachment was “not a question that is on the minds of anyone on the House Judiciary Committee” heading into Wednesday.
“We’re focused on making sure that Bob Mueller is able to tell his story to the American people in a clear, comprehensive and compelling fashion,” Jeffries said.
Melanie Zanona and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.