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Mueller puts ball in Democrats' court

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's surprise public remarks Wednesday, in which he said charging President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE with a crime was “not an option” for his office, put new pressure on House Democrats as they scramble to advance their investigations into the president’s conduct.

Mueller’s first public comments since the start of his landmark 22-month probe into Russia's election interference leave Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders with tough questions about forging a path forward.

The special counsel suggested he won’t appear before Congress to discuss the findings of his 448-page report — potentially depriving Democrats of their key witness — but impeachment advocates found new fuel for a campaign Pelosi has been fighting for months to defuse.

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“The next step is for the House Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment inquiry to formally begin consideration of whether or not articles of impeachment should be filed,” tweeted Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (R.I.), the head of the Democrats’ messaging arm, after Mueller’s Wednesday morning statement.

Pelosi and other top party leaders have sought Mueller's testimony before several key congressional committees in hopes the former FBI director could shed more light on his report, particularly on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice.

But Mueller made clear Wednesday that he hopes to avoid such an appearance, forcing Democrats to decide whether they will drag him to Capitol Hill with a subpoena, or seek other strategies to advance their probes.

Pelosi, for her part, vowed to charge ahead with those investigations, which have faced fierce headwinds from an administration that’s been increasingly reluctant to cooperate.

“The American people must have the truth,” she said in a Wednesday statement that made no mention of subpoenas.

Complicating leadership’s position was Mueller’s emphasis that his team declined to bring charges against Trump, not because they found no reason to do so, but because it was “not an option” under Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.

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Those guidelines, Mueller said, stipulate “that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

Mueller did not mention impeachment, but his remarks were widely interpreted as an allusion to that process. 

His words have only invigorated lawmakers who are itching to start an impeachment inquiry, giving them new ammunition in pressing party leaders to launch the proceedings immediately.

“It wasn't lack of evidence. It was DOJ policy,” tweeted Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemings on Florida: 'We're excited about what we're seeing' but 'taking absolutely nothing for granted' Why it's time for a majority female Cabinet Sunday shows preview: The final push to Election Day MORE (D-Fla.), an impeachment supporter on the Judiciary Committee. “[Mueller] said that this ‘deserves the attention of every American.’ He's right. Congress must act.”

But the Democrats’ next move remains unclear.

Rep. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has stressed the importance of having Mueller testify before the panel, suggesting he would issue a subpoena if need be. But Nadler’s statement after Mueller’s remarks made no mention of such an order. Instead, he tipped his hat to Mueller for his service, and said the responsibility now falls on Congress “to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump.”

He did not say how lawmakers would go about doing that.

Staging a press conference Wednesday afternoon in New York, Nadler was similarly vague, sidestepping questions about whether he will compel Mueller’s testimony with a congressional subpoena.

“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today,” Nadler said.

Before Mueller’s remarks, at least 37 House Democrats were on record backing the launch of an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Afterward, Reps. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations Disagreements are a part of our process OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump extends Florida offshore drilling pause, expands it to Georgia, South Carolina | Democrats probe Park Service involvement in GOP convention | Sanders attacks 'corporate welfare' to coal industry included in relief package MORE (D-Minn.) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) added their names to the list, though most Democratic lawmakers responded by holding firm to Pelosi’s favored approach of continuing with investigations without making the leap to impeachment.

“We must remain committed to aggressively investigating the president’s wrongdoing and we will not rest until the American people have answers,” said Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last MORE (Mass.), vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus.

Failing to obtain Mueller’s public testimony would be a major blow to Democrats, who are seeking to paint Trump as a corrupt and unfit leader heading into the 2020 elections.

Earlier this month, a CNN poll found that only 3 percent of respondents had read the full Mueller report, and just 10 percent said they had read “some” of it.

Democrats believe that if they can make more voters aware of what is in the report, their support for investigations — and possibly impeachment — will grow.

A pleading statement from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) encapsulates that push: “I have one simple request: read the report. Listen to it on tape. Call my office, and we’ll read it to you.”

One fix to address the limited awareness is to broadcast witness interview after witness interview so that Democrats can hammer Trump’s actions into the public consciousness, as laid out in the obstruction section of the Mueller report. But the White House has fiercely fought back on that approach, stonewalling Democrats’ subpoenas and other attempts at oversight.

Democrats say they won’t be deterred.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Hoyer on Trump election challenges: 'I think this borders on treason' Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview MORE (D-Md.) said Mueller’s testimony could break some of the logjam and clear up lingering questions. He is urging the special counsel to appear before Congress.

“Given that the President has not been cleared of wrongdoing, and given the seriousness of Russia’s interference in our democracy,” Hoyer said, “I believe that the American people deserve to hear testimony from the Special Counsel about his report and the report's conclusions.”