The Mueller report and the impeachment paradox: Removing Trump from office may have gotten harder

"The Mueller report was a crashing disappointment" and yet "Congress has to do something." What now?

The Mueller report may have actually just made impeachment less likely. CREDIT: JOE REEDLE / GETTY
The Mueller report may have actually just made impeachment less likely. CREDIT: JOE REEDLE / GETTY

Now that the Mueller report has revealed presidential malfeasance, clear attempts at obstructing justice, and willingness by the Trump campaign to gain damning information on political opponents from foreign adversaries, the question of impeachment has raced back to the fore.

House members are divided on whether to impeach: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), tossed cold water on the prospects of impeachment, saying that Trump is “not worth” attempting to impeach. Newer members, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) have largely led the charge toward impeachment. Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) joined the call on Friday as well.

They have good reason to call for Trump’s removal: The 448-page Mueller report was a referral of evidence to Congress of the impeachable offenses by President Donald Trump. The special counsel intended Congress to take up the question whether to charge Trump.


“The conclusion that Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” says the report.

But for those familiar with modern America’s history of impeachment, the Mueller report may have paradoxically made impeachment proceedings more difficult for Congress to pursue.

“I think the Mueller report was a setback for impeachment… The Mueller report was a crashing disappointment,” Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and author of “The Case for Impeachment,” told ThinkProgress. “I thought the case for obstruction against Trump was as strong as the case against [Richard] Nixon; he’s doing the same kind of things Nixon was doing. And it’s ten times stronger than the case against Clinton.”

For Lichtman, much of the letdown stemmed not necessarily from the content, but from the fact that Mueller himself failed to run down numerous leads, whether in failing to interview Donald Trump Jr. or get more out of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI and was cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation.

“I, like everybody else except the Trump partisans, thought Mueller was the right guy to [lead the investigation], to go forthrightly with the evidence — and he did neither,” Lichtman said. “Reading through the whole Mueller report, I learned very little we didn’t already know. Most of it was already reported, but there wasn’t a single astonishing moment.”


And it was that inability to find a single “astonishing moment” — the smoking gun many were waiting to read — that undercut whatever momentum Democrats may have had in the push for impeachment.

If nothing else, the Mueller report may only reinforce existing partisan splits; the president and his supporters continue to say the report is sham that paradoxically exonerates him, and the attorney general himself helped bolster the Republican narrative by repeating the false and misleading “no collusion” refrain.

Regarding both Nixon and Clinton, “there was political will to hold the president accountable for obstruction of justice,” said Ken Hughes, an expert on Watergate with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “In both cases, Congress rose to its responsibility for ensuring that the president is not above the law, and now there seems to be a great hesitation to do that.”

The current gridlock is structural. Republicans in the Senate have no incentive to move against the president. “The Republicans in Congress know that if they don’t support Donald Trump, they will lose their jobs in the next primary to someone who will support Donald Trump. And the Democrats remember that the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans, and they’re afraid impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will backfire on them,” Hughes said.

“The Democrats always do this,” said Lichtman. “They never learn, and that is that they always play not to lose. We saw that with [Barack] Obama in 2016. He should have been shouting from the rooftops, not just about Russian meddling, but about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump.”

But none of this means simply waiting for 2020 to oust the president is necessarily the right move, either morally (the president abused his powers, a government investigation has found) or in terms of maintaining America’s democratic underpinnings — especially with the Mueller report detailing all manner of impeachable offenses.


“Congress has to do something,” Hughes told ThinkProgress. “Because otherwise, the takeaway from this experience will be that a president can thwart an investigation against himself and his political allies, and can do that with impunity, without paying any sort of price, and that’s a threat to the rule of law.”

This article has been updated to clarify how Democrats are divided on the question of impeachment.