WASHINGTON — Democratic House leaders on Wednesday brushed aside Robert Mueller’s clear reluctance to testify before Congress and said they would call him anyway, hoping to give the House’s investigation of President Donald Trump a lift even as several senior Democrats joined the rising clamor to begin impeachment proceedings.
The range of responses underscored the power of Mueller’s first, and so far only, public statement about his two-year investigation and the 448-page report it produced. But with lawmakers scattered around the country for the Memorial Day recess, it remained to be seen whether the impact of his words — that Trump could neither be exonerated of obstruction of justice nor charged under Justice Department policy — would prove forceful enough to upend the debate among House Democrats over impeaching Trump.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said in his nine-minute news conference. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
Those coming out in favor of impeachment seized on that line and others to claim that Mueller was making as explicit an impeachment referral as he could.
“We’re beyond talking about this in terms of political implications,” Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told WGBH radio in Boston, endorsing an impeachment inquiry. “We have to do what’s right.”
McGovern, the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, is one of the highest-ranking House Democrats to back the idea, but there were other new supporters, too, pushing the total number of lawmakers in favor of an impeachment inquiry well above 40. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said Trump had “egregiously obstructed justice” and warranted the inquiry. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine urged Congress to “continue its own investigations in the face of unprecedented obstruction and move toward an impeachment inquiry.”
Top House leaders, though, continued to be more cautious, arguing that Democrats had not yet built the kind of case that would be necessary to warrant such significant action. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has tried to hold back an impeachment inquiry, said Wednesday that “nothing is off the table.”
“But,” she continued at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, “we do want to make such a compelling case, such an ironclad case, that even the Republican Senate, which at the time seems not to be an objective jury, will be convinced of the path we have to take as a country.”
She does not believe her colleagues have yet done that.
Instead, top Democratic leaders allied with Pelosi used Mueller’s remarks as a chance to reiterate the importance of having the special counsel testify before Congress. The sight of Mueller describing his findings on live television deepened Democratic convictions that putting him on the witness stand would help convince Americans of the gravity of Russia’s election interference and Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation.
“While I understand his reluctance to answer hypotheticals or deviate from the carefully worded conclusions he drew on his charging decisions, there are, nevertheless, a great many questions he can answer that go beyond the report, including any counterintelligence issues and classified matters that were not addressed in his findings,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Democratic lawmakers and their aides indicated that they remained reluctant to push Mueller, 74, too aggressively, either with a subpoena or a public pressure campaign. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, whose staff has been negotiating with Mueller’s for weeks, sidestepped the matter altogether Wednesday.
“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today,” Nadler said during a news conference in Manhattan.
Mueller indicated that he did not relish speaking to Congress and did not see any particular value in doing so. If summoned to Capitol Hill, he suggested, he would go no further than what his office wrote in the report, calling the document “my testimony.”
“There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress,” Mueller said. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself.”
Liberal Democrats in the House and those running for president — as well as one Republican House member — seized on Mueller’s refusal to clear Trump of wrongdoing and his statement that Justice Department policy prohibited charging a sitting president to argue that Congress must.
Within hours of Mueller’s remarks, explicit calls for impeachment proceedings came from 10 of the 23 Democratic candidates for president: Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Julián Castro, the former housing secretary; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Sen. Kamala Harris of California; Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida; Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; Rep. Eric Swalwell of California; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Three of them — Booker, Buttigieg and Gillibrand — had not previously called for impeachment.
Most Republicans, though, called again for the House to move on to other issues and let Mueller enter retirement. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, accused Democrats of being focused solely on “satisfying their deep-rooted disdain for the president.”
“Special Counsel Mueller confirmed today what we knew months ago when his report was released: There was no collusion and no obstruction,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “Relitigating the 2016 election and reinvestigating the special counsel’s findings will only further divide our country.”