From impeachment to indictment: 5 repercussions from Robert Mueller's testimony

Susan Page
From impeachment to indictment, 5 ways Robert Mueller's long-awaited testimony is likely to resonate down the road

Now what? 

The long-awaited testimony by Robert Mueller before two congressional committees Wednesday didn’t drop bombshells or spark the fireworks many Democrats had hoped for, but it will have repercussions.

From impeachment to indictment, the former special counsel's appearance could have an impact on Republicans and Democrats, on congressional decisions in the next few weeks and the presidential election next year. 

Here are five ways that his seven hours in the witness chair could reverberate down the road: 

1) Impeaching the president 

It just got less likely. 

Of 235 House Democrats, more than 90 have endorsed launching an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump – not including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Before the hearings, those who support impeachment saw Mueller’s testimony as the most likely way to ignite outrage and perhaps meet Pelosi's demand that there be broad public sentiment and the possibility of winning a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate before moving ahead. 

Though Mueller outlined an assault on democracy by Russians and a response by Trump and his presidential campaign that was "problematic" and worse, his testimony left Democrats frustrated. As he had warned beforehand, he declined to expand on the contents of his 448-page report, two years in the making.

He refused to be cinematic, to deliver a sound bite or create a viral moment.

"I refer you to the report," he repeated again and again.

When committee members asked him to read aloud passages from the report, he told them he'd prefer that they read them instead.

He didn’t sketch the narrative arc that might persuade skeptics to endorse impeachment. In the opening moments, Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., prompted Mueller to state that he hadn’t cleared Trump of allegations of obstructing justice, noting that Justice Department guidelines prohibit indicting a sitting president.

"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" Nadler asked.

"No," Mueller replied.

Over the hours that followed, he declined to opine on whether impeachment was warranted. "I'm not going to talk about that issue," he told Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La. 

In the wake of the hearing, Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., announced her support for impeachment, and other members of Congress could follow. But Mueller’s testimony didn’t provide the clear tipping point that some Democrats wanted – enough to, say, get an additional two dozen or so representatives on board that would put a majority of the Democratic caucus behind an inquiry.

The clock is ticking. Congress heads into the six-week-long August recess, and the time is fast approaching when Democrats are likely to conclude that defeating Trump in the 2020 election takes precedence, and is more feasible, than impeaching him.

2) Indicting the president

It could happen, Mueller made clear, once Trump has moved out of the White House.

Indeed, in what seemed for a time to be a blockbuster exchange, Mueller confirmed that he would have indicted Trump on a charge of obstruction of justice if not for Justice Department guidance that prohibits charging a sitting president.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., had ticked through Trump actions that he said met the “three elements” of the crime of obstruction. Then he said, “The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the O.L.C. opinion?” (That is a reference to the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel.)

“That is correct,” Mueller said.

After the lunch break, Mueller clarified that wasn’t what he meant. "What I wanted to clarify is the fact that we did not make any determination with regard to culpability in any way," he said. He didn't decide whether to indict Trump because that wasn't an option. 

That said, he confirmed several times that a president could be indicted for obstruction of justice or other crimes after he left office.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked if Trump might be able to wait out an indictment by winning a second term. “What if a president serves beyond the statute of limitations?” he asked. 

Mueller said he didn’t really have an answer. The statute of limitations on federal obstruction charges, Quigley said, was five years.

3) Shaping public opinion

Mueller’s testimony may have hardened public views, but it’s hard to believe it reshaped them.

Before the hearing, most Americans opposed impeaching Trump. In an ABC News/Washington Post Poll this month, nearly six in 10 said the House shouldn't launch impeachment proceedings. That's true even though a majority called Mueller credible and said the special counsel's report didn't exonerate Trump.

On this, there was predictably a partisan divide. Most Democrats in the poll supported impeachment; most Republicans said Trump had been cleared.

'Not a witch hunt':Mueller testifies on Trump and Russian election meddling in 2016

The hearing is more likely to have reinforced that division than to have bridged it.

The Republicans and Democrats questioning Mueller seemed to have wandered into different hearings. What was the issue? Democrats argued that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice, even if he couldn’t be charged with the crime. Republicans attacked the origins of the inquiry as tainted – un-American, one declared – and said it was pursued for partisan reasons.

4) Nominating a Democrat

Mueller sometimes stumbled in his responses, often asked that questions be repeated and, understandably, looked exhausted by the time he testified before the House Intelligence Committee in the afternoon. When Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., lobbed what was intended to be a softball, Mueller was unable to remember which president appointed him as U.S. attorney in Massachusetts. (He said George H.W. Bush; it was Ronald Reagan.) 

He was less nimble and more hesitant than he had been in dozens of hearings before Congress during his time as FBI director.

“This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years,” David Axelrod, the top strategist in Barack Obama’s campaigns, wrote on Twitter. “And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.” Mueller will turn 75 next month.

That lesson might not be lost on Democrats who have expressed concerns – fairly or not, and at the risk of being accused of ageism – about the prospect of nominating a presidential candidate in his 70s to challenge Trump, 73, next year.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is 77.

Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns, drew that line in a tweet: “Note to sleepy @Joe_Biden: In next debate, do not say, ‘Could you repeat that question?' ”

5) Trump’s takeaway

Judging from the temperature of his tweets, Trump moved from early morning anger about the hearings to afternoon delight.

“NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!” he declared in one tweet as the hearing was about to begin. In another, he denounced the Mueller investigation as “The Greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. History, by far!”

By the time the hearings drew to a close, the president seemed increasingly relieved, then even jubilant in a string of more than two dozen tweets and retweets that ridiculed Mueller and claimed vindication for himself.

“I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearings,” he wrote, calling the sessions "a disaster for Robert Mueller & the Democrats." And this: “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mueller testimony: Impeachment, indictment and other repercussions