An American flag flies outside the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Now That Mueller Is Done, Democrats Face a Dilemma on Impeaching Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats uniformly called for the public release of Robert Mueller’s report, but that unity will be tested as they weigh whether the special counsel’s findings should be used to pursue an impeachment of President Donald Trump.

It’s a quandary for party leaders. There’s a hunger for impeachment among many Democratic voters who believe it is merited regardless of the contents of the Mueller report. But the effort could backfire as polls show the wider U.S. public isn’t sold on the idea.

Top Democrats have mostly avoided discussing the merits of impeachment until Mueller finishes his work. Now that he’s done, they can no longer cite the probe to sidestep the question.

The completion of the probe presents a defining moment that could shape Democrats’ prospects heading into the 2020 election. Over the nearly two-year investigation, Democrats have watched anger toward Trump grow among their core voters amid a barrage of controversies. Many of those voters believe the Democratic-led House has a duty to impeach him and would be disappointed if it refused.

Calming the Clamor

On the campaign trail, presidential contenders sought to calm the impeachment clamor.

"We want to make sure that we carefully guard and jealously hold these institutions of our democracy and employ this mechanism of impeachment as an absolute last resort," Beto O’Rourke said in Charleston, South Carolina. "Ultimately, I believe this will be decided at the ballot box in 2020.”

With Trump and his allies gearing up to declare vindication if the report offers anything less than ironclad evidence of a crime, Democrats are haunted by fears that a partisan pursuit of impeachment will drive wavering voters back into the arms of a besieged president whose job approval rating has been stuck in negative territory.

“It may well be the case that the only appropriate response is impeachment, but to me, the most decisive way up to put an end to Trump is for him to be defeated massively at the ballot box,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s seeking party’s 2020 nomination, said Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina.

Little Support

Just 36 percent of Americans say Trump should be impeached and removed from office, while 59 percent say they disagree, according to a CNN poll taken March 14-17.

That’s down since early December — just before Democrats took control of the House — when the same poll showed 43 percent support impeachment and 50 percent oppose it. Support for the cause among Democrats fell to 68 percent from 80 percent in the same time period, while support among college graduates dropped to 35 percent from 50 percent.

“If there’s no collusion that was found then it strongly vindicates President Trump,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, said Saturday on Fox News.

"People are tired of this constant harassment of the president," he said. "With many Democrats in this Pelosi majority, they want impeachment as the end result regardless of the facts."

All Consuming

House Democratic leaders worry impeachment would be an all-consuming affair that risks drowning out the rest of their message and agenda. Regardless of the gravity of Trump’s offenses, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reminded her caucus that such a move would require selling the public and persuading enough Republicans to join them.

“You’re wasting your time, unless the evidence is so conclusive that the Republicans will understand,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told USA Today recently. “Otherwise, it’s a gift to the president. We take our eye off the ball.”

In a letter to House Democrats on Saturday, Pelosi made no mention of impeachment, saying only that “Congress requires the full report and the underlying documents so that the Committees can proceed with their independent work, including oversight and legislating to address any issues the Mueller report may raise.”

High Bar

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, whose committee has jurisdiction over impeachment, has set a high bar. According to a person familiar with his thinking, he’ll employ a three-step test: First, has the president committed impeachable offenses? Second, do those offenses threaten the constitutional order and necessitate removal? Third, is the evidence compelling enough to win over skeptics in a trial and assure bipartisan support?

Impeachment requires a simple majority of votes in the House, which would guarantee a trial in the Senate, with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts presiding. But two-thirds of the Senate would be needed to force the president out of office, which means at least 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats.

That’s highly unlikely absent irrefutable evidence of criminality by Trump. The president’s approval rating among Republican voters has hovered between 80 and 90 percent in most polls — twice his national rating — and that has made most GOP lawmakers wary of crossing him.

Just two U.S. presidents have ever been impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted by the Senate and served out their terms.

Additional Investigations

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the progressive caucus co-chair who sits on the Judiciary Committee, vowed on Friday to review the Mueller report and “continue the much broader set of investigations that are part of our duty and obligation as members of the Judiciary Committee around obstruction of justice, public corruption and the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and abuse of power.”

While Jayapal has previously said Trump has committed impeachable offenses, she didn’t mention it in her statement.

“Our obligation is to the Constitution and to our democracy, and we intend to fulfill that obligation,” she said.

As anticipation about Mueller’s findings continued to build on Saturday, Pelosi’s office released two statements on a topic she’d prefer to discuss: health care. One statement celebrated the 9th anniversary of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, and the other announced new legislation to reduce premiums and out-of-pocket costs for families.

House Democratic leaders held a caucus-wide conference call Saturday in which six key committee chairs discussed their message — to demand the report be released and the underlying documentation be given to Congress, according to a member on the call who was granted anonymity to discuss what was said. The party leaders and chairs provided no information that wasn’t already publicly available, the person said.

Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House and presidential campaigns, said the contents of the Mueller report will determine how leaders address the impeachment question. He said the findings will give the party a roadmap to continue their Trump-related probes.

"This is end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. What the report does is it forces into the light of day the next set of investigations into the Trump administration," Ferguson said. "The American people want to see what this investigation finds, and what the other investigations into corruption and criminality find, before deciding what should be done."

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