US Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s first – and possibly last – public statement on the Russia investigation is prompting fresh calls on Capitol Hill to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, a step that Democratic leaders have so far resisted.
Surprising Washington with brief remarks on Wednesday, Mueller indicated it’s up to Congress to decide what to do with his findings. The special counsel reiterated that, bound by Justice Department policy, charging a sitting president with a crime “was not an option”. But he also stressed he could not exonerate Trump. Instead, he said, “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system.”
With Mueller closing his office and no further comments expected, it all amounted, for some, to an open invitation for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings.
“He’s asking us to do what he wasn’t allowed to – hold the president accountable,” said Democratic Representative Val Demings, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel with impeachment power.
“We have one remaining path to ensure justice is served,” said Senator Cory Booker, a Democratic candidate for president. “It’s clear that the House must begin impeachment proceedings. No one is above the law.”
But top Democrats, with almost no support from Republicans, are hesitant to go it alone on an impeachment inquiry that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned would be divisive for the country. Steered by Pelosi, they prefer to continue the work of investigating the president and building a case, as she often says, wherever it leads.
Pelosi said on Wednesday that while “nothing is off the table”, she wants congressional committees to investigate whether Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation. She said, “Where they will lead us, we shall see.”
She added, “What we do want to make is such a compelling case, such an iron-clad case, that even the Republican Senate, which at the time seems to be not an objective jury, will be convinced of the path that we have to take as a country.”
Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also stopped short of calling for an impeachment inquiry.
“All options are on the table and nothing should be ruled out,” Nadler said on Wednesday.
Nadler’s committee is among several conducting dozens of probes in the Democratic-controlled House into subjects such as Trump’s tax returns, the handling of the Russia probe and the running of government. The president has stonewalled multiple investigations.
Nadler vowed to continue investigating, even as some on his panel say opening a formal impeachment proceeding would strengthen their hand in the legal battles over documents and testimony.
“Given that special counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump – and we will do so,” Nadler said in a written statement issued immediately after Mueller’s remarks.
A redacted version of the Mueller report was published in April. It concluded there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow. But Mueller declined to make a judgment on whether President Trump obstructed justice, though the report outlined 10 instances in which Trump tried to impede the investigation.
Barr and former deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently determined Trump had not broken the law.
Shortly after Mueller’s announcement on Wednesday, Trump tweeted that “nothing changes”.
“The case is closed! Thank you,” Trump said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that “the report was clear – there was no collusion, no conspiracy – and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction.”
She added, “After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same.”
Before Mueller’s unexpected appearance on Wednesday, Democratic leaders had tamped down increasingly vocal voices calling for an impeachment inquiry. Pelosi sent politicians home for a weeklong recess brushing back the pro-impeachment faction, urging her caucus to stick with the step-by-step approach of investigations. They hoped to hear directly from Mueller in a high-profile hearing that could help focus public attention.
But now that Mueller has made clear the work ahead will not likely include him – announcing the special counsel’s office is closing and he’s resigning his position – it’s igniting new urgency on Capitol Hill to pick up where the special counsel left off.
Representative Seth Moulton, another Democratic presidential hopeful, said, “Mueller did his job. Now, it’s time to do ours. Impeachment hearings should begin tomorrow.”
Mueller made clear his desire to avoid testimony, declaring the report his final word on the matter. He said it would not be “appropriate” for him “to speak further about the investigation”.
Nadler would not say whether he would compel Mueller to testify, as he has threatened to do. But he hinted that he may not pursue an aggressive approach against the special counsel, saying, “Mr Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today.”
Republicans, as they have done since Mueller’s report was released, called for Congress to move on.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham, said that Mueller “has decided to move on and let the report speak for itself. Congress should follow his lead.”
Graham has said his committee does not need Mueller to testify. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary panel, had supported Democratic requests for Mueller’s House testimony but appeared to be satisfied by the special counsel’s comments on Wednesday.
“While I had hoped he would come before the committee and answer questions from lawmakers, Robert Mueller has led an extraordinary life of public service and is entitled to his life as a private citizen once again,” Collins said.
But at least one Republican is not ready to move on, Representative Justin Amash, who has become the sole GOP voice in Congress urging impeachment proceedings.
“The ball is in our court, Congress,” Amash tweeted.