Former special counsel Robert Mueller's reticent testimony to Congress likely confirmed what many Democrats had feared: If they want to end Donald Trump's presidency, their best bet is through next year's election, not impeachment. Mueller's highly anticipated appearance Wednesday at back-to-back House hearings delivered neither the viral moments nor the bombshell soundbites that the anti-Trump crowd hoped would persuade skeptics or overwhelmingly reshape public opinion. The contents of Mueller's remarks were damning, several Democrats said, noting the former FBI director's statements that the two-year investigation of Russian election interference was "not a witch hunt," and indeed found substantial evidence of obstruction of justice.
But after Mueller's flat one-word answers, seeming confusion about questions and refusal to produce new information, hopes that the performance would launch lawmakers on a path to impeachment have dimmed.
The 2020 election "is unquestionably the only way he gets removed from office, so we can never lose sight of that," House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, who presided over one of Mueller's hearings, said Thursday.
Trump himself called the hearings "a disgrace from every standpoint" in a television interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday.
"This should never happen to another president of the United States again," he said, adding that the ordeal amounted to an "absolute catastrophe for our country" and calling it as a "fake witch hunt."
Democrat Al Green, who forced an unsuccessful House vote on articles of impeachment last week following Trump's racially charged attacks on four liberal congresswomen, acknowledged Mueller's appearance fell short of expectations.
"There was no 'aha' moment because we've had the report and watched or discussed the President's impeachable actions ad nauseam," Green said on Twitter.
Ninety-five of the House's 235 Democrats voted for Green's measure. While pro-impeachment legislators were hoping dozens would shift to their position, just two more lawmakers publicly announced they now backed impeachment proceedings.
House Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester said she supports impeachment after listening to Mueller declare that Trump stonewalled his investigation, failed to tell the truth in written answers to questions, and likely could have been charged with a crime without the Justice Department's policy against indicting a sitting president.
"Director Mueller has done his job. Now it's time for Congress to do ours," she said. House Democrat Karen Bass, an impeachment skeptic, said the hearing "didn't change me," and that she wanted to proceed with ongoing House investigations.
"I also think that all of our leaders need to be on the same page," she said. They aren't. According to Politico, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, rebuffed an impeachment push by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, telling a closed-door meeting after Mueller's testimony that it was premature.
For months, Pelosi has tamped down impeachment calls, aware of how dangerous such a vote would be for centrist Democrats in Republican-leaning districts. Several 2020 presidential hopefuls support impeachment, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand.
But Pelosi has highlighted the need for the White House candidates to focus on the economy and health care -- kitchen table issues that propelled Democrats to their House majority last year -- in order to help win back working-class voters who tilted for Trump in 2016. She is also concerned about public opinion polling showing that most Americans are against impeachment, and has said unsuccessful proceedings would allow Trump to claim exoneration, boosting his re-election bid.
But she made clear that she was not shutting the door, saying, "If we have a case for impeachment, that's the place we will have to go." Meanwhile, Pelosi is backing House investigations of Trump and his administration, and is monitoring several court cases which could provide potentially damning new evidence and testimony from the White House.
While Mueller failed to provide Democrats with their closing argument for impeachment, he did issue a clarion call for election security, warning that Russia was preparing more interference for 2020. Even with current administration officials like FBI director Christopher Wray recently warning lawmakers of active threats, Republicans have blocked Democratic proposals to safeguard US elections.
The Democratic-led House passed legislation requiring voting systems to use paper ballots and improve technical protections, but it has stalled in the Senate. Senate Democrats introduced an initiative requiring political campaigns to report to federal authorities any election interference attempts by foreign entities.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the measure Thursday, calling it "a highly partisan bill" from lawmakers "hyping up a conspiracy theory about President Trump and Russia."