Dems set to debate Trump impeachment in post-Mueller era

House Democrats will huddle Tuesday morning in the Capitol for the first time since the release of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE's report on 2016 election tampering, which has heightened liberal calls for the impeachment of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE — and complicated the efforts of Democratic leaders seeking a more restrained response.

Heading into the gathering, most Democrats appear to be on board with leadership's cautious strategy, which rejects impeachment — at least for now — while various House committees continue to investigate the president's conduct. 

ADVERTISEMENT

At the same time, lawmakers are acknowledging that there are more voices talking about moving forward with impeachment in the post-Mueller world.

"To be sure, there are more people now talking about it and are more favorable toward that movement. But I also think more people are willing to do what the Speaker said," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "We need to allow these committees of jurisdiction to proceed with their work."

A handful of liberal Democrats have been beating the impeachment drum, saying they've seen ample evidence already that Trump has acted in ways that should disqualify him from the office.

"Mueller kicked the impeachment ball to the Congress," Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Maxine Waters says her committee will call in Zuckerberg to testify about Libra MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted last week. "The Constitution gives the responsibility to Congress to impeach an unfit president — 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' What more do we need?"

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Anyone for tennis? Washington Kastles Charity Classic returns this week Dem tensions snag defense bill MORE (D-Calif.) carved a distinction between those lawmakers calling for impeachment articles to be brought to the floor immediately and others, including himself, who are pushing to launch an impeachment inquiry. But he called it "reckless" to rule out the process altogether.

"We have to stop tiptoeing around this issue," Huffman said. "We have to stop walking on eggshells as if impeachment is not something that's a part of our job description."

Outside activists have also joined the fray. Need to Impeach, a group founded by the billionaire environmentalist Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerMoulton campaign makes formal case to DNC to be added to debate stage Bullock makes CNN debate stage Steyer defends his wealth in 2020 race: 'Should we put a limit on what Beyoncé makes?' MORE, used the long spring recess to deliver more than 700,000 postcards to the offices of more than 30 House lawmakers. While the group targeted both parties, it leaned heavily toward Democrats, including Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border House votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Md.), the majority leader; James Clyburn (S.C.), the majority whip; Adam SchiffAdam Bennett Schiff10 questions for Robert Mueller Court filings show Trump, Cohen contacts amid hush money payments House passes annual intelligence bill MORE (Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment How Trump suddenly brought Democrats together on a resolution condemning him The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE (Tenn.), who heads the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. 

There seem to be three camps emerging as Democrats wrestle with an appropriate response to the Mueller report: those clamoring for impeachment; those who oppose it altogether, for fear of the potential political blowback at the polls next year; and those in the middle, who want to investigate the president vigorously and see where the process leads.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets 10 questions for Robert Mueller Ocasio-Cortez tears into Trump's immigration agenda: 'It's about ethnicity and racism' MORE (D-Calif.) and her leadership team, joined by the heads of the top committees, fit firmly in the latter group. They want to see the full, unredacted Mueller report with underlying documents, hear testimony from Mueller himself and use that information to guide their own probes. Only if that process finds evidence of severe wrongdoing on Trump's part — enough that public sentiment shifts, forcing Republican lawmakers to back impeachment — would it be appropriate to launch proceedings, they argue.

"That may not happen until their constituents start saying, 'Hey, I'm a big Trump guy, I have my red cap here, but you know I just heard testimony that really troubled me,'" said Cleaver.

"That's exactly the way it ought to go, if it's going to go," Cleaver added.

Rep. Jimmy PanettaJames Varni PanettaLawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei Political world mourns death of Doris Day Lawmakers pressed to fix tax law glitch MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, said Mueller's report uncovered presidential wrongdoing that "could easily" constitute obstruction of justice. But the impeachment process, he noted, is both essentially political — since it hinges on the votes of sitting lawmakers — and practically futile without the support of Senate Republicans. 

"As a prosecutor, you don't just look at the law and the facts. You look at the big picture, and you take into account your discretion, and that means taking into account your courtroom, taking into account the jury," Panetta said. "You have to look at that in coming up with your analysis of whether or not you go forward in regards to impeachment. And knowing the ultimate outcome, based on the makeup of that jury in the Senate, it seems to me that it wouldn't be a winner."

Indeed, Republicans in both chambers — some of whom supported the impeachment of former President Clinton and then hammered former President Obama with charges that he abused power — have been notably silent in the wake of the Mueller report. While a handful of GOP lawmakers expressed some concern with the findings, most joined Trump in characterizing the report, falsely, as a full exoneration of the president on both the "collusion" and obstruction questions. 

"I think it's time to move on," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (R-Ky.). "This investigation was about collusion, there's no collusion, no charges brought against the president on anything else, and I think the American people have had quite enough of it."

The GOP's change in tone has not been overlooked by Democrats, who are accusing Republican leaders of being hypocrites in their defense of the president.  

"Ask them how they're going to stand by while this President tramples over our constitution, democracy and the rule of law," said a senior Democratic aide. "Why aren’t they equally as outraged by this president’s behavior?"

In the same breath, however, many Democrats are also stressing the need to win GOP support if any impeachment movement is to have legs. 

"That's also where we need to apply pressure," the aide said. "It's not viable unless these guys start to feel some heat."