Robert Mueller didn’t change any minds during his surprise Wednesday morning press conference at the Department of Justice centered on the report prepared by the special counsel’s office on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump-supportive conservatives saw in Mueller’s press conference what they’ve seen since he submitted his full report to Attorney General William Barr back in April: the end of any future investigations into the president. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has become one of President Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, tweeted that Congress should move past the Mueller investigation, echoing White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said (mistakenly) that the special counsel’s report showed “no obstruction” and that “everyone else” should move on as well.
Today’s statement by Mr. Mueller reinforces the findings of his report.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 29, 2019
And as for me, the case is over.
Mr. Mueller has decided to move on and let the report speak for itself.
Congress should follow his lead.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) argued the same, saying that Democrats should move on to “work in good faith” with the same president who repeatedly insults Democrats. (Other Trump-supportive commentators simply slammed Mueller instead).
House Dems spent last two years falsely claiming collusion. DOJ concluded no collusion, no obstruction. Case closed. House Dems have a choice: continue the partisan theatrics or move on and start to work in good faith with @RealDonaldTrump to advance the business of the nation.— Senator Thom Tillis (@SenThomTillis) May 29, 2019
And conservatives who’ve always deferred to the political process — saying if Democrats want Trump out of office, they should either begin impeachment proceedings or beat him at the ballot box in 2020 — reiterated the same on Wednesday.
As Commentary magazine writer and conservative author Noah Rothman put it on Twitter, “The constitutional remedy for presidential misconduct is clear. It’s up to Article 1 to take it from here.” (Article 1 refers to Article 1 of the Constitution, which governs the legislative branch, including the power to impeach a president.)
And then there was Rep. Justin Amash, the lone Republican lawmaker to call for President Trump’s impeachment last week on Twitter, who agreed, writing “the ball is in our court, Congress.”
The ball is in our court, Congress. https://t.co/idpQo1xItH— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 29, 2019
But changing the hearts and minds of Trump’s biggest supporters wasn’t Mueller’s point, particularly since his press conference largely reiterated the findings of his report.
In fact, as he emphasized his very real concerns with Russian electoral interference, Mueller stated point blank in response to calls from Democrats for him to testify before Congress, “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
Mueller refocused the debate — and put the spotlight on impeachment
Many conservatives argued on Twitter and elsewhere that rather than issuing a vituperative statement on Trump’s fitness for office, Mueller was making instead a plaintive plea: I’ve written my report. Now it’s time for Congress to act to impeach Donald Trump, if it wants to.
Democrats running for president in 2020 heard a similar message, but conservatives’ political calculus is slightly different. In short, conservatives are arguing that impeachment is a political process, and if Democrats want to go through that process, they should. But while some of the more progressive Democrats believe the vote for impeachment could be a political boon for them, conservatives argue, as many more moderate Democrats did in 2018 and today, that impeachment is both entirely possible and largely unpopular. (Though Democratic voters themselves support it, a majority of Americans do not, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.)
For some conservatives, the story of the Mueller investigation is really about the balance of power between the government’s branches — or imbalance, rather. National Review editor Charles C.W. Cooke tweeted that Mueller’s press conference made clear “why Congress must be restored” as a legislative body and a check on the executive branch (of which the Justice Department is a part.)
Today underscored once again why Congress must be restored. We asked the executive branch to investigate itself, which guaranteed— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) May 29, 2019
"obstruction" questions. Then the investigator acknowledged he can't indict anyway, and used a "not exonerated" standard. Recipe for disaster. (1)
It’s worth noting that this is not a new argument. In fact, the role Congress might play in determining whether or not Trump would be impeached — as impeachment is a political process, not a legal one — was front and center during the runup to the 2018 midterms. (Though as my colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote in April 2018, some Republicans seized on impeachment’s poor polling with the general public in their quixotic effort to keep control of Congress.)
But Mueller’s press conference made that subtext text; his resignation as special counsel leaves any continued investigation or arbitration over what Trump did or didn’t do to Congress. And now conservatives and others are making it clear: If impeachment is going to happen, it’s something Democrats will have to own.
At the Federalist, conservative writer David Marcus argued that Mueller’s perceived punt on the issue of impeachment (which, again, is a political process, not one Mueller himself could have led) only makes House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi’s effort to tamp down her caucus’s more outspoken impeachment hawks more difficult, writing, “whatever Mueller’s intent was today, he poured gasoline on a fire Pelosi is desperately trying to put out.”
Again, Mueller’s press conference — in which he reiterated, as his report did, that President Trump was not exonerated by the special counsel’s findings — was not going to change minds about Trump’s guilt or innocence for Trump’s supporters and particularly for Trump himself, who tweeted that “insufficient evidence” rendered one “innocent” in the American justice system. But it may have strengthened the spines of some Democrats, especially as a number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates voicing support for beginning impeachment proceedings in the wake of Mueller’s statement.
The impeachment question was always a question for Congress, a legislative body tasked by the Constitution with deciding when and if to remove a sitting president. For conservatives and others, Mueller’s press conference brings America right back to the beginning — and back to Congress.