Robert Mueller's report on the investigation into the 2016 election landed on Thursday, following months of anticipation. With dozens of indictments and several plea deals already public, many of the findings, such as extensive Russian interference in the election and significant criminality within the Trump campaign team, were well known. And yet the release of the report, a hefty 448-page document riddled with redactions, marks a significant turning point in the Trump presidency, and in the nation more broadly: the moment when the Democratic House needs to get serious about impeachment.
No sooner had the Mueller report landed than top Democrats began backing away from impeachment. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat, brushed off the idea, saying that "going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point". His words echoed Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comment last month, when she said of impeaching Trump, "He's just not worth it."
But as the Mueller report makes clear, President Trump spent much of the past two years working to obstruct the investigation into wrongdoing by his campaign and, later, by his administration. Mueller believed he did not have the authority, as special counsel, to pursue a case against the President. He did, however, make quite clear in his report that Congress did.
Mueller writes in his report that, had he been able after the investigation to exonerate the President, he would. But the facts stood in the way of that exoneration. "The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred," he explains in careful language. Despite that, he believed an investigation could not go forward, lest it interfere with the “constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct" – in other words, impeachment.
Mueller has, then, offered Congress a road map in the second volume of his report, just as special prosecutor Leon Jaworski did after investigating the Watergate affair. The question is what Congress will do with it.
The decision matters, and not just because it could shape the course of the rest of the Trump administration. Mueller dismissed the administration's claims that the President was unable to criminally obstruct justice because, essentially, if the President does it, it's not illegal. That position was rejected in the Nixon era and has been rejected again by Mueller. But when it comes to who upholds the rule of law, Mueller believes the job falls to Congress.
And indeed, Congress has not only the ability but the responsibility to continue the investigation into Trump's wrongdoing, beginning with but not stopping at obstruction. The administration has been blatantly violating the ban on self-enrichment (millions have flowed into Trump properties, including the Trump hotel situated near the White House), and his business connections with governments abroad – governments with which his administration regularly makes deals – remains shrouded in mystery.
Democrats in the House, now in the majority, can investigate that wrongdoing. So why should they move forward with impeachment, when they could simply conduct parallel investigations into administration wrongdoing?
They should do so because it is the only avenue left to defend the rule of law. That is a political act: a demonstration of the party's commitment to hold public officials, including the President, responsible for ethical and legal violations that compromise the role of the chief executor of the nation's laws, at a moment when few other institutions are demonstrating the same commitment.
Some Democrats, including Hoyer and Pelosi, have argued that they need not explore impeachment because the 2020 election will determine Trump's future. And it's certainly the case that if impeachment hearings get under way in the next few months, they will likely drag out beyond the federal election 18 months from now. But public will is not a substitute for political integrity. A campaign is not the same as a formal investigation; its results are not a barometer of criminality.
It is true that, while impeachment in the House is possible, conviction in the Senate is unlikely. And yet politically, it is still worthwhile. Not because it will ensure Democratic victory in 2020. Who knows, it may very well harm the party's chances. But electoral victory is not the final measure of a party's responsibility: its defence of a set of values and norms, particularly in an era when they are being ignored if not destroyed, is also an important measure of a party's worth.
Impeachment hearings should be held not because the outcome is certain. Few trials begin with a clear knowledge of their outcome, which is right and fair. When the Watergate investigation began, it seemed highly unlikely that Republicans would turn on Richard Nixon. Indeed, some of his most vociferous defenders were on the Judiciary Committee that would decide the next steps. They were ultimately converted when they heard the totality of the evidence, but even that should not be the measure of whether hearings are held.
The Mueller report baldly outlines obstruction of justice, evidence of a series of crimes committed by the President of the United States. Members of Congress may not like that the buck has been passed to them, but it has. If their powers are to mean anything at all, they must act in response.