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Mueller Hearing Changes Few Democratic Minds on Impeachment

Former special counsel Robert Mueller's testimony on July 24 served up less for pro-impeachment Democrats than they might have hoped. 

Mueller spent more than five hours in front of the House Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees, confirming the most damaging parts of the report on the Trump campaign, Russian interference, and instances of alleged obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump. But the testimony failed to lead to any significant defections among House members to publicly call for impeachment. And, pro-impeachment Democrats still faced a problem in having House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) not backing impeachment efforts thus far. 

Hours after Mueller gave his testimony, she gave no indication that the substance of her position had changed.

"Whatever decision we made in that regard would have to be done with our strongest possible hand and we still have some matters outstanding in the courts,” she said, answering a question at a press conference on an impeachment inquiry.

The testimony also had not changed many Democrats positions, either—at least not yet.

"It'll take me a day or two to absorb how the public has reacted to this, and how I react to all this," Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told Fortune, speaking about the Mueller testimony. "While he said that impeachment was "on the table," he added, "I still counsel patience with people...I don't know that anything gets expedited by changing the status from oversight investigation to impeachment."

Other Democrats who had not come out for impeachment were still making up their minds throughout the day.

"Jerry Nadler was masterful in getting Director Mueller to say that the president was not exonerated, and for probably millions of Americans that was the first time they'd ever heard that," said Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). "We're going in the right direction, but in terms of the Perry Mason moment I don't think that's going to happen."

Both representatives doubted that the Senate would convict the president.

Meanwhile, pro-impeachment Democrats gave optimistic assessments that the hearings would give momentum to the impeachment push. 

When asked whether the hearings moved the impeachment push forward, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said, "Absolutely. It was very clear that there was overwhelming evidence. We were very disciplined in how we went through those five charges of obstruction of justice."

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) responded to a similar question with one word: "Yes." Rep. Mary Scanlon (D-Pa.) said, "I hope it would, as someone who loves our country, loves our government, thinks that it can't operate when you have the executive actively working to undermine our constitutional processes."

But these hopes did not lead to any significant defections among the Democratic caucus. At least two representatives have come out in favor of impeachment since the testimony, pushing the number of Democrats favoring impeachment to 90, but it was still about 28 short of being a majority of the 235-member Democratic caucus. Pelosi's reluctance to support an investigation has caused members to hold off. 

House Democrats would need 218 members to send an impeachment inquiry to the Senate, meaning that, along with former Republican Rep. Justin Amash who backs impeachment, they could only have 18 defections in their caucus. The vote could be politically difficult for the 31 House Democrats who represent districts that Trump carried in 2016.

The testimony also suffered from a problem of timing. Originally, Democrats had hoped that Mueller would testify in April following the release of his 448-page report on the Trump campaign and Russian interference into the 2016 election. Instead, due to prolonged negotiations between Democrats, the Department of Justice, and Mueller's team, eventually leading to a subpoena, and Democrats further delaying the testimony by a week, he testified at the last week that Congress was in session ahead of a six-week summer recess—a lifetime in modern politics.

Pro-impeachment Democrats' best hope, though, is that the hearing would move to change public opinion in a way that the written report did not, making it easier for more Democrats to support impeachment.

"I think for those who tuned in and were honestly seeking the truth, they could not have helped but to have been impressed with the fact that the president committed high crimes that are impeachable offenses," said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) "I don't know how many people were watching, but I guess the word will get out."

Absent a shift in Pelosi's position, though, pro-impeachment Democrats will have to hope that Mueller's message is strong enough to shift public opinion, leading members to get off the fence.

More Mueller testimony coverage from Fortune:

—Robert Mueller testimony: What we learned so far

Trump goes on Twitter rant before, during Mueller testimony

—Robert Mueller’s opening statement: Read full text

—Trump 2020 campaign team using Mueller testimony to raise $2 million

—How 2020 democrats are responding to Robert Mueller’s testimony

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