Mueller testimony fails to move needle on impeachment

House Democrats hoping that former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE would trigger momentum for impeaching President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE were met with resistance Wednesday from a witness who often wouldn’t even answer lawmakers’ questions.

Unlike Mueller’s May remarks on his report on Russia’s election meddling, his testimony Wednesday did not spark any new major wave behind the movement to oust the president.

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And some of the most vocal impeachment proponents said they don’t expect Mueller’s halting testimony — in which he asked legislators to repeat their questions on multiple occasions and often declined to answer questions at all — to lend any significant new power to the effort. 

“I think that there were some persons who were hoping for a seminal moment, a wild moment — a wild, gotcha moment,” said Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Feehery: Losing faith in the people and the Constitution Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race MORE (D-Texas). “It didn’t happen.”

Green, who forced a vote to impeach Trump last week, predicted Mueller’s testimony won’t prompt any meaningful change in public support for ousting the president. Only launching the process, he argued, would bring more people on board. 

“I think public sentiment will change significantly once you start the process of impeachment,” he said. 

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention MORE (D-Calif.), another impeachment supporter, delivered a similar assessment early in Mueller’s testimony.

“I did not have super high expectations for this testimony, and I would say it’s living up to my low expectations,” Huffman said. “He’s made it clear in every possible way that he’s just not going beyond the words he wrote in his report.” 

Trump and Republican lawmakers took a victory lap Wednesday after the hearings, ripping Democrats for refusing to move on from the Mueller investigation. 

Still, impeachment backers say they are optimistic that Mueller’s testimony will help sway members of the public who aren’t familiar with the findings of the special counsel’s report. Most Americans, they argue, haven’t read the full 448-page report but may have found it easier to watch Wednesday’s hearings.

“There was no new information relayed today,” acknowledged Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers MORE (D-Md.), a House Judiciary Committee member who supports an impeachment inquiry. “But it was new to about 99 percent of the American people. So it wasn’t new to anybody who read it. But most people have not read it.” 

Mueller did offer Democrats some sound bites. He confirmed that Trump “was not exculpated” by the report’s findings on whether he obstructed justice over the course of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling, despite the president’s claims to the contrary.

Mueller also confirmed, in response to questioning from a GOP lawmaker, that the president could be charged with obstruction of justice after leaving office.

And Mueller testified that Trump’s repeated embrace of WikiLeaks and its distribution of Clinton campaign emails was “problematic.”

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“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said.

But Mueller declined or deflected dozens of other questions from lawmakers over the course of his testimony. 

At one point, Mueller was forced to revise his testimony. He initially said in response to a question from Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuOvernight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week Democrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote Ted Lieu undergoes surgery following chest pain MORE (D-Calif.) that Trump couldn’t be indicted because of an existing Justice Department opinion saying that sitting presidents cannot be indicted. But Mueller later clarified that his report did not reach a determination as to whether Trump committed a crime. 

Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalImpeachment obliterates tinges of comity in House House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE (D-Wash.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) co-chairwoman who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats needed Mueller to simply state his findings to counter Trump and Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrJudge rejects DOJ effort to delay House lawsuit against Barr, Ross Holder rips into William Barr: 'He is unfit to lead the Justice Department' Five takeaways on Horowitz's testimony on Capitol Hill MORE’s framing of the report, even if it was largely Democrats reading from the report with Mueller offering terse affirmative responses.

“We knew what was in the report, but we needed Mueller to say it because we needed Mueller to agree this was in the findings of this report,” Jayapal said. “We really needed to reset the table and reeducate people about what was actually in there, which I think happened.”

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUSMCA is nice but no model Anti-impeachment Democrat poised to switch parties Grassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks MORE (D-Calif.) maintained her position that the House still needs to make a case for impeachment.

“My position has always been: whatever decision we make in that regard would have to be done with our strongest possible hand, and we still have some outstanding matters in the courts,” Pelosi said at a press conference in the Capitol with three top committee chairmen after Mueller’s testimony.

At least one House Democrat came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry on Wednesday following Mueller’s testimony: Rep. Lori TrahanLori A. Trahan'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership Ethics panel reviewing freshman Democrat over campaign finance complaint House Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment MORE (Mass.). Trahan voted in favor of Green’s impeachment resolution a week earlier. 

“Mueller’s message to the American people today was clear: his report did not exonerate the president, and that there is ample evidence that the president broke the law by repeatedly engaging in efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Trahan said in a statement.   

More than 90 House Democrats have come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, according to a tally kept by The Hill. But impeachment backers are still mostly progressives and amount to less than half of the 235-member caucus. Only a half-dozen Democrats representing swing districts have joined the push — and even they all hail from districts carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE in 2016.

Some of the most liberal impeachment backers said they’re confident Mueller’s appearance will build support for the effort, particularly after lawmakers return home this week for the long August recess and hear the voters’ reaction to the former FBI director’s testimony.

“This was a pretty critical [hearing] for a lot of members who were waiting to see what came out of today. And … going back home this is going to [be] brought up to everybody a lot,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanHouse passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House panel unveils rival fix for surprise medical bills | Democrats punt vote on youth vaping bill | Pelosi drug bill poised for passage after deal with progressives Pelosi reaches deal with progressives to avert showdown over drug price bill MORE (D-Wis.), a co-chairman of the CPC. “This is elevating the discussion considerably.” 

Jayapal also sounded bullish that more lawmakers would support an impeachment inquiry after hearing from Mueller. 

“I just believe that it’s hard to listen to all of that and not believe that that’s not where we should be,” Jayapal said.

However, Huffman suggested that Democrats simply haven’t been aggressive enough in the first place since Mueller’s report was released three months ago to win over public opinion.

“So much of this is baked in, and frankly our caucus hasn’t tried very hard to move public opinion on these issues. We’ve been passive. And we allowed [Attorney General] Bill Barr to seize the narrative in a very effective but cynical and I believe disgusting way. And now we’re trying to play catch-up, as we try to do this Hamlet act about what to do on impeachment. And we just haven’t been very bold or very assertive in any of this,” Huffman said.