WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s public remarks on Wednesday kicked off a new surge of Democrats calling for impeachment proceedings to begin against President Trump.
Progressives in the House and contenders for the party’s 2020 presidential bid are the two loudest voices calling for impeachment, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to call for caution.
Mueller poured more fuel on that fire Wednesday when he reiterated what he had written in his report: that his office could not charge Trump with a crime because that is a role for Congress, not the Department of Justice.
“Under longstanding department policy, a present president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional,” he said. “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Several Democrats took this as an implicit — or explicit – referral to Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is seeking his party’s nomination for president, became the latest Democrat to say Congress has “a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately.” Booker had previously called only for further investigation by relevant committees.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he'd leave the decision up to the House Judiciary Committee, but if it were to begin impeachment proceedings, he would "support their decision to do so."
Other Democrats running for president in 2020 who had previously called for impeachment proceedings took Mueller’s public statement as yet another call to action.
“What Robert Mueller basically did was return an impeachment referral,” California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted. “We need to start impeachment proceedings. It's our constitutional obligation.”
Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke called for impeachment proceedings to begin because “there must be consequences, accountability, and justice.” Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, and Pete Buttigieg are among the other presidential hopefuls calling to begin impeachment proceedings. Seth Moulton, a member of the House and a 2020 candidate, said that Congress should begin proceedings "tomorrow."
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had endorsed Pelosi's stance earlier this month, but on Wednesday said it is time to begin impeachment proceedings. Former vice president Joe Biden, however, was more restrained. His spokesperson said that Biden "agrees with Speaker Pelosi that no one would relish what would certainly be a divisive impeachment process," but that Congress should continue to investigate Trump.
Up to three dozen House members have also been calling for impeachment proceedings to kick off. But Pelosi did not mention the word “impeachment” in her public response to Mueller’s statements. She said that Trump is not above the law, and that Congress “will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy.”
This is in line with previous refusals by the speaker and House leadership to begin impeachment proceedings. They have said impeachment could tear the country apart and that the more prudent path forward is to let oversight committees continue their multipronged legal battle to pry information from the White House.
The wild card is Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who has argued that Trump’s actions were corrupt and impeachable, and called on Congress to take action. Amash is the only elected Republican in Washington to call for impeachment, though he has said several of his colleagues privately agree with him.
In the face of this pressure, House Democratic leadership has gotten more aggressive in their public comments. Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chair, tweeted Wednesday that Congress will “respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump,” though he did not say what that response will be. This is in line with Pelosi last week accusing Trump of committing a cover-up.
Pelosi and House leadership now find themselves in the situation of urging their party to stay on course while also being on the record accusing Trump of committing crimes and cover-ups, as even a Republican is daring them to respond.
If Pelosi does give in, the next step would be to begin an impeachment inquiry, which is an investigation by the Judiciary Committee into whether there are grounds to draw up articles of impeachment. If the answer is yes, those would then go to a floor vote in the House. Even if impeachment were to pass the House, it would then head to the Senate, where Republicans have control. No Senate Republican has come out in favor of impeachment.
This post has been updated to include statements from Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Seth Moulton, and Kirsten Gillibrand.