Imagine, if you can, a scenario in which Attorney General William Barr declined to put out a four-page letter to Congress describing the Mueller report three weeks ago.
Imagine, too, that he didn't hold a press conference Thursday before the redacted report's release.
The narrative that set in after Barr stepped into the limelight might be very different. Barr declared in his letter that President Trump and his associates did not conspire with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election and that the president was not going to be criminally charged for obstruction of justice, even though the special counsel's report didn't "exonerate" him.
Barr went further Thursday, playing down the possibility that Trump obstructed justice. The president, after all, was "frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency," he said.
Translation: Not much to see here.
And then the 448-page, two-volume report was released. It told a more nuanced — and for some, damning — story about the president's role and the Trump campaign's interactions with Russians. And it's putting Democrats in a bind about what to do next and whether to push forward with possible impeachment proceedings.
The report concluded that no one on the campaign "conspired or coordinated" with Russians, but it found "numerous links" and said the "campaign expected it would benefit" from the Russian efforts.
Criminal conspiracy? The Mueller team concluded it was not. But Barr said four times Thursday that there was no "collusion." Collusion is the language of the president and has a much broader definition than a legal conspiracy that can be proven in a court of law.
Trump addressed potential obstruction in a tweet Thursday denying he did anything wrong despite the details explicitly laid out in the report.
On obstruction, Mueller's team found a lot of evidence for it. The report points to 10 separate instances of the president's attempts to slow down investigations or oust officials such as Mueller or then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump, though, was thwarted at times by those close to him, aides and allies who decided for either legal or political reasons not to follow through on the president's requests.
The most notable example was Don McGahn, Trump's White House lawyer, refusing to lean on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller. He decided "that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre," according to the report.
All of it left Democrats crying foul, upset with Barr.
"What we've learned today is that Attorney General Barr deliberately distorted significant portions of Special Counsel Mueller's report," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement. "Special Counsel Mueller's report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn't apply to him. But if you hadn't read the report and listened only to Mr. Barr, you wouldn't have known any of that because Mr. Barr has been so misleading."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who is also running for president, called on Barr to resign, calling him an "embedded Trump ally." "You can be the president's defense attorney or America's attorney general," he said, "but you can't be both."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Democrats were in the majority, said the Mueller report "amounts to a formal presentment of misconduct that reached the highest levels of the Trump campaign and administration."
He added, "Robert Mueller did his job. Now it's time for Congress to do our job."
The Mueller report notes that Department of Justice guidelines are "that a sitting President may not be prosecuted." But Mueller's team also points out, "if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment."
And the report points to Congress: "With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice."
And therein lies the quandary for congressional Democrats, newly in charge of the House and potential impeachment proceedings. Many Democrats feel Trump's actions, particularly the president's efforts at potential obstruction, are impeachable offenses. But veterans on Capitol Hill have seen what a partisan impeachment attempt did politically to Republicans 20 years ago when they impeached then-President Bill Clinton.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who would shepherd impeachment proceedings, was careful during a press conference Thursday.
"The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president, and the responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions," Nadler said.
But does that mean impeachment?
"That's one possibility," Nadler said, but, he added, "It's too early to reach those conclusions."
Instead, Democratic leaders want the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report, the underlying documents, and for Barr and Mueller to testify.
Barr is offering for select congressional leaders to view a less-redacted version, he is testifying May 2 and he said at his Thursday press conference that he had no objection to Mueller testifying before Congress.
Nadler has requested that Mueller testify no later than May 23.
But, at some point, Democrats will have to face the important to-impeach-or-not-to-impeach question.
"Based on what I've seen so far, the House has to seriously consider impeachment, with Robert Mueller having laid out a very detailed case for it," said Luis Miranda, a Democratic strategist and former Democratic National Committee spokesman, whose emails were among those hacked during the 2016 campaign. "Democrats were elected to a majority in the House to exercise congressional oversight and to carry out their Constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government. Trump is unlikely to resign or be found guilty in the GOP-controlled Senate, but if you were elected to the House you have a distinct responsibility, even if it doesn't square with 2020 electoral interests.
"It would be hard to go back to voters and ask them to trust you with their vote if you don't follow the Mueller report to where it leads."
At least two other strategists disagreed precisely because of those 2020 interests. They didn't want to be named because of how their comments could affect relationships with Democratic clients.
"Impeachment proceedings only help Trump," one of those strategists said. "[Republican] voters that don't like Trump will now vote for him [if impeachment is started], because they see doing so as protecting the party. You'd also further invigorate Trump's existing supporters. The unfortunate thing is that the report actually makes a good case for obstruction."
Party leaders may use congressional investigations to see if something worthwhile emerges that wins over some Republicans. That's necessary, another strategist said, because "it would take time and energy and not produce fruits of the labor" otherwise. In other words, this strategist said, it's not worth it unless Trump is going to be removed, because as it is now, "there's enough to wage a political fight" that can win in 2020.
That is exactly the kind of argument Democratic leaders make. Many firmly believe they need Republican cooperation. Pelosi said earlier this year that impeaching Trump was "not worth it" partially because the GOP Senate wouldn't go along, Trump would still be president — and at what political cost to Democrats with the 2020 election around the corner?
That line seemed to be echoed again Thursday by one of Pelosi's top lieutenants.
"Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told CNN's Dana Bash. "Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment."
Will that be enough for a restive Democratic base? For now, Democrats are sticking to calling for the unredacted report, demanding Mueller testify and seeing what turns up under other rocks they're turning over in the myriad congressional investigations they now control.
Trump's presidency may be "an exercise in normalizing extraordinary behavior," as The Washington Post's Dan Balz notes, but Democratic leaders believe the most likely way to remove him from office is at the ballot box.
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