Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted, public report is nearly a week old, but the Democratic Party in Washington is still trying to figure out what to do. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of president Donald Trump’s most committed opponents in Congress, summed up the Democrats’ dilemma during a Sunday morning television interview. “I think what we are going to have to decide as a caucus is, what is the best thing for the country,” the California congressman said.
That’s politician-speak for “we have no clue what to do with this 448-page tome. We’re still knocking our heads together and looking into it. Ask us in a few more weeks.”
The Mueller Report is a godsend to Democrats on Capitol Hill and across America. While it could have been a lot worse for Trump—Mueller didn’t find an election-year criminal conspiracy between the president, his campaign, or the Russian government, nor did he rule on obstruction of justice—the report is pretty terrible for Trump in terms of the narrative it helps create. Mueller found 11 separate cases of Trump putting pressure on the Justice Department to shut down or tame the Russia investigation, including a telephone edict by Trump to his White House counsel to fire the special counsel. All of these juicy tidbits are delicious for Democrats, the vast majority of whom look at Trump and see an ignoramus with a loud mouth, terrible instincts, even worse judgment, and the most dangerous threat to American democracy since...well...ever.
But pick ten Democrats from a line-up and ask each of them whether impeachment is the answer, and you’re likely to get a 50-50 split. The opposition party is genuinely unsure of which road it wants to take, and it’s evident in the individual remarks of Democratic lawmakers in the days since the Mueller Report was released.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t like Donald Trump as a person or as a politician. But she doesn’t like impeachment either, viewing it as a politically treacherous effort that could cause as much anguish for Democrats as it does for Trump. As a dedicated liberal but a seasoned political pro even before she was elected in her own right more than three decades ago, Pelosi understands better than anyone how draining impeachment proceedings can be to the party who initiates them. Despite forceful pressure from her left-flank, the two-time Speaker is advising caution.
As a student of political history, Pelosi knows what happened to the Republicans 21 years earlier when they rabidly sought to burn Bill Clinton at the stake for lying under oath about his sexual dalliances. Clinton survived and indeed thrived, while Americans punished Republicans at the ballot box for being more fixated on Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and the blue dress than about the American economy, crime, and war and peace. Pelosi doesn’t want anything to do with a repeat, especially when the presidential election season is just getting started and the stakes are so high.
There are those in the Democratic caucus, however, who read Mueller’s findings and conclusions and see criminality in high office—the very thing that inspired the architects of the U.S. Constitution to include an impeachment clause. Obstruction of justice is a serious offence, one that can land you a five-year sentence in federal prison. Obstruction of justice by the most powerful elected official in the land is even more distressing. It’s difficult for a non-partisan to scour the Mueller Report and not conclude that there was at least an attempt to obstruct justice; imagine what the partisans feel!
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House committee responsible for overseeing an impeachment inquiry, is open to the option. So is Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democratic investigator in the House. So are progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who can’t envision a world in which somebody like Trump can have direct access to the nuclear codes.
All of these questions will come home to roost sooner or later. Rumour has it that Pelosi will talk about all of this to the Democratic caucus this week, where a strategy will be agreed upon or forced down the throats of more junior lawmakers.
Until that time comes—and likely afterward—the “I-word” will be the 800-pound gorilla in the room for Democrats at a time when the people in the White House should be the ones with the beating migraines.