No Perry Mason verdict from Mueller, and no impeachment from Pelosi

The Mueller investigation was supposed to be a legal process. It was conducted under the supervision of the Department of Justice, after all. But what kind of a legal conclusion is this? “While the report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

That's not a verdict that would satisfy Perry Mason.

The process is no longer legal. It's now political. In fact, it always was.

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTrump pushes back on impeachment talk: 'Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!' Moulton enters 2020 White House race Trump takes aim at Dem talk of impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) knows that. She said two weeks ago, “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there's something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don't think we should go down that path because it divides the country. And [President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE] is just not worth it.” 

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What would be “compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan?” Oh, say, something like Richard Nixon caught on tape ordering a cover-up of the Watergate burglary: “[The CIA] should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don't go any further into this case.” That was the “smoking gun” that drove Nixon out of office.

Apparently, Mueller could not find a smoking gun. On the charge of collusion with Russia, “the Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.” That gives President Trump and his defenders their takeaway: “No collusion!” The President immediately tweeted: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”

Not quite.

On the charge of obstruction of justice, “the Special Counsel… did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” That leaves Democrats with a less compelling takeaway: “Possible obstruction of justice!”

It will be difficult for Democrats to call Mueller's ambiguous finding “a cover-up” after they have spent months praising the special counsel's independence and integrity. Democrats are in a rage. They put their trust in Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and what did he come up with? “Meh.” 

House Democrats will now be energized in conducting their own investigation of President Trump. But the House investigation will always be seen as partisan. The president will tweet about “another witch hunt.” The pressure will be on House Democrats to find the smoking gun that Mueller could not find.

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President Trump also faces state investigations into his business and financial dealings and campaign finance violations: for instance, the charge of hush money payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. But established precedent holds that a President cannot be indicted while he is still in office.  After the Mueller report, Trump's acolytes will dismiss the finance charges as small potatoes. After all, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress 20 years after Columbine: What has changed? Impeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent MORE was found guilty of lying under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, but that was not a big enough smoking gun to get him removed from office.

Impeachment of a President is, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Joe Biden, “a big fucking deal.” Once impeachment comes up, it takes over the entire political agenda. Just as it did in 1998.

In August 1998, after al Qaeda terrorists bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa killing 224 people and wounding 5,000, President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.  Critics immediately accused Clinton of “wagging the dog” — using the strikes to distract public attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (The movie “Wag the Dog” had recently come out. It involved a fictional President hiring a Hollywood producer to stage a fake war in order to distract public attention from a sex scandal.) In 1998, every bit of news — even a terrorist attack — was seen through the lens of scandal and impeachment.

Impeachment not only swallows the agenda. It rallies the President's supporters.

1998 was the first midterm election in 64 years in which the President's party gained House seats. Democratic voters were defending their President. Speaker Pelosi does not want to see Republican voters storm the polls next year to defend President Trump. A Republican backlash against impeachment could result in Democrats losing their new majority in the House of Representatives — and Pelosi losing her Speakership. Not to mention Trump getting re-elected.

The truth is, impeachment is not likely to result in the removal of President Trump from office. Removal requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate.  Democrats don't even have a majority. In order to force Trump out, other investigators will need to find what Mueller could not — a “smoking gun.”

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).