Washington (CNN)Democrats are still grasping for an effective response to Robert Mueller’s report after leaving an opening for President Donald Trump to mount a furious and fact-twisting weekend victory lap.
The party’s House majority is scheduled to hold a conference call at 5 p.m. ET Monday to discuss next steps following the report. And Democratic House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Sunday that the caucus would meet in the next few weeks for a high-stakes discussion on whether to pursue impeachment.
Trump stepped into the political vacuum, filling the weekend with outraged tweets about a report that is unlikely to end his presidency but presented a damning account of his conduct.
His tweeted attacks underlined how the President and his Attorney General William Barr have controlled the political narrative over the end of the Mueller investigation for nearly a month and left the Democrats scrambling to respond.
“Despite No Collusion, No Obstruction, The Radical Left Democrats do not want to go on to Legislate for the good of the people, but only to Investigate and waste time. This is costing our Country greatly, and will cost the Dems big time in 2020!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The special counsel presented Democratic leaders with a dilemma with his nuanced findings — that contacts between Trump’s team in 2016 and Russians did not amount to a conspiracy — and his failure to exonerate the President over obstruction of justice.
Democrats fear an attempt to oust Trump through impeachment would likely backfire given Republican numbers in the Senate and could therefore embolden the President and further electrify his base in 2020.
But failing to censure Trump in some way would effectively validate his behavior in the 2016 campaign and ignore rich evidence that he used presidential power to thwart a federal investigation. It would also make Democrats appear impotent and unable to leverage the House majority they won after vowing to constrain Trump.
Democratic House committee chairmen were out in force on Sunday talk shows in an apparent effort to grab back the political initiative, three days after the release of a redacted version of the special counsel’s final report.
The party’s reaction to Mueller’s stunning tale of Russian election interference, and lying, recriminations and cover-ups in the White House has so far lacked a coherent thread.
Some top Democrats have all but ruled out impeachment hearings. Some say they may still be on the table while others argue that it is too soon to decide.
“It’s a very difficult decision and we’re going to have a caucus about this over the next couple weeks to try to figure out what the best course is,” Schiff said on “Fox News Sunday.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said some of Trump’s actions detailed in the Mueller report looked to be “impeachable.”
But he added on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “I don’t think we’re doing that. We may get to that. We may not. As I’ve said before, it is our job to go through all the evidence.”
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings pointed out the political risk of opening impeachment hearings.
“The fact is that I think we have to be very careful here,” Cummings said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “The American people, a lot of them clearly still don’t believe that President Trump is doing things to destroy our democracy.”
Caution from 2020 candidates
Democratic 2020 candidates are also divided on what to do next, adding to a sense that Trump has already come out on top in the post-report spin.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren distinguished herself from her rivals by becoming the first 2020 candidate to call for impeachment.
But another top Democratic hopeful, California Sen. Kamala Harris, told reporters that though she believed Trump had obstructed justice, she wanted to see the “underlying evidence.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said it was up to Congress to decide whether Trump should be impeached.
“I think he may well deserve (impeachment), but my focus, since I’m not part of Congress but I am part of 2020, is to give him a decisive defeat at the ballot box if he is the Republican nominee in 2020,” Buttigieg said Friday.
The absence from Washington of the most powerful Democrat in the nation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was on a congressional delegation abroad when the report was released on Thursday, may have been partly to blame for a low-wattage Democratic response to the report.
“The Caucus is scheduling a conference call for Monday to discuss this grave matter, which is as soon as our analysis and this Holy Season’s religious traditions allow,” Pelosi said in a letter to members.
Trump also benefited from the decision of Barr to release the report ahead of the Easter and Passover weekend when Congress was out of town and GOP leaders were spared being put on the spot over the report.
Trump blasts Mueller probe in weekend-long tweetstorm
The President, though he claims he is exonerated, is not ready to move on from the Mueller investigation.
“How do you impeach a Republican President for a crime that was committed by the Democrats? MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” the President wrote in another angry tweet.
Trump and his supporters say the investigation is in itself a symptom of corruption in the FBI and an attempt by the Washington establishment to invalidate his election.
But evidence of repeated contacts between his associates and Russians in 2016, amid an effort by Moscow to interfere in the election and to favor Trump, in retrospect make it all but inevitable that alarm bells would ring in the US intelligence community.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” insisted that there was no ethical breach by the campaign in the multiple meetings with Russians that the President’s aides later lied about.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians,” Giuliani said.
The President’s tweetstorms were laced with distortion and inaccuracies, but they were typical of the effective spin offensive he has mounted for months to discredit Mueller.
His strategy has ensured no leakage from his grassroots base, offered fodder for the conservative news propaganda machine and made it impossible for most GOP critics in Congress to break with him.
It might also have helped foment the political atmosphere in which top Democrats have shied away from the prospect of impeachment, fearing that it could trigger a political backlash.
The report’s bottom line on conspiracy also played into Trump’s incessant efforts to convince voters there was “no collusion” and Mueller’s inconclusive findings on obstruction allowed Barr to set a narrative that there was no case for the President to answer.
Top Democrats lukewarm on impeachment
Even before the report was released, Democrats like Pelosi were wary of impeachment, arguing that the best way to deal with Trump was to try to oust him from office in 2020.
Conventional Washington wisdom has solidified behind the argument that Democrats could leave themselves open to accusations of overreach if they try to oust Trump.
Democratic 2020 candidates, meanwhile, have not been hearing many calls for impeachment on the trail from voters concerned more about rising health care costs and economic inequality.
And national polling conducted before the release of the Mueller report shows that only a minority of voters favor impeachment and support was even falling off among Democrats.
But the Democratic strategizing on Monday also suggests party leaders understand they cannot afford to look too timid.
As an alternative to impeachment hearings, Democratic House chairmen will seek to keep up the pressure on Trump with high-profile public testimony by Barr and Mueller.
Multiple other investigations are also under way on Capitol Hill that have provoked showdowns over Trump’s taxes, his past business record and the conduct of his White House.
Democrats hope such activity will build a case for voters that the President is not fit to serve a second term. In this scenario, Mueller’s findings can serve as fodder for whomever emerges as the 2020 Democratic nominee.
But the non-impeachment route also comes with political risks that have not yet been much considered in Washington.
If Trump wins re-election in 2020, Democratic leaders would face questions about why they did not use their power to wound the President with an impeachment saga when they had the chance and why they did not force GOP senators to publicly defend behavior that critics say is unacceptable in a President.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.