Mueller puts ball in Democrats' court

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE's surprise public remarks Wednesday, in which he said charging President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates 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 PelosiThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Judd Gregg: An Irish friend and wisdom Juan Williams: Warren on the rise 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 CicillineHillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups Judiciary Democrat says small firms fear retaliation from big tech in antitrust probe Hope Hicks: Trump campaign felt 'relief' after WikiLeaks released damaging info about Hillary Clinton 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 DemingsDemocrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats fume, say Hicks declines to answer questions 2020 Democrats mark three years since Pulse nightclub shooting 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 NadlerNadler apologized after repeatedly calling Hope Hicks 'Ms. Lewandowski' at hearing Hope Hicks: Trump campaign felt 'relief' after WikiLeaks released damaging info about Hillary Clinton House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate 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 McCollumInterior spending bill holds Trump administration accountable for 2017 promises House Dems call on Trump to cancel plans to speak at July Fourth celebration Mueller puts ball in Democrats' court 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 ClarkOvernight Health Care: Major doctors group votes to oppose single-payer | Panel recommends wider use of HIV prevention pill | New lawsuit over Trump 'conscience protection' rule Democrats scuttle attempt to strike Hyde Amendment from spending bill Clyburn walks back comments about impeachment 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 give Trump trade chief high marks Hispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks 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.”