Will Mueller’s testimony spark new impeachment talk?

Democrats who back opening an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump are hoping former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance Wednesday before two House committees gives the effort a pivotal boost.

Despite a House vote last week to reject opening impeachment proceedings — a vote widely dismissed as having nothing to do with Mueller’s findings — supporters are continuing to move ahead with a serious look at whether an formal inquiry is warranted.

“We continue doing what we’re doing in the Judiciary Committee, reviewing evidence, seeking evidence, seeking fact witnesses, going to court to get our subpoenas enforced,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told McClatchy.

The future of any impeachment proceeding largely rests with two powerful, unpredictable forces: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats who face tough re-election races.

At the moment, Pelosi and most of those Democrats are carefully avoiding calling for an impeachment inquiry.

They will watch Mueller’s testimony for anything that justifies calling for an inquiry.

The vote last week to move ahead with impeachment proceedings against Trump for “bigotry causing harm to society” came “out of thin air in a sense. It did not emerge from the Judiciary Committee. It did not enumerate high crimes and misdemeanors. It did not discuss obstruction of justice or contempt of Congress,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and House Judiciary Committee member, said.

Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, has supported an impeachment inquiry, but voted to kill the resolution. “It was not a very strong case for impeachment,” he said.

The hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees will be the first time Mueller will be publicly questioned about his findings.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats in 2020 to regain control of the House that they lost last year, when 31 Democrats won in districts Trump carried in 2016. A handful of other Democrats eked out wins last year over GOP incumbents and are being targeted by the Republicans’ national campaign arm.

The formal impeachment process would likely begin in the House Judiciary Committee. Should articles of impeachment be approved there, the full House would vote on each of them. If Trump is impeached, a trial would be held in the Senate, and removal from office would require 67 of that chamber’s 100 members.

Whether any of that happens depends on the so-far cautious Democrats in the House moving in that direction. Here are seven key players to watch:

NANCY PELOSI, House Speaker

Eighty-seven of the 235 House Democrats and one independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, have publicly urged starting an impeachment inquiry, according to data compiled by TheHill.com, but privately, many more have told leaders they want to begin the process.

The California Democrat’s view is that 2020 election wins will come by focusing on policies to improve health care, immigration policy, gun control and other day-to-day constituent concerns.

She also knows political reality: removing Trump from office would need 67 Senate votes, which appears unlikely since Republicans control 53 of the 100 seats. And vulnerable Democrats could be imperiled if shaky incumbents have to vote on charges against the president.

Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, next year faces re-election in a state Trump won by 28 percentage points in 2016, while Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, is running in a state Trump won narrowly.

A Senate trial also could very well energize the Trump base, so Pelosi proceeds patiently and carefully. “Let us see where the facts will take us and let us have this be as dignified as our Constitution would require. And then, we’ll see what happens after that,” she said last week.

JERROLD NADLER, House Judiciary Committee chairman

The New York City Democrat aggressively leads the committee of 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans that would handle impeachment. Nadler has relentlessly pushed to investigate Trump and his allies and plans to keep up the pressure.

The committee has spent this year immersed in an often frustrating effort to compel Trump administration officials to testify. This month, on a party line vote, it authorized Nadler to subpoena 12 people involved in Trump’s White House, campaign or personal matters, including senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mueller, who had been reluctant to testify, agreed to appear before the committees after subpoenas were issued. That decision followed weeks of negotiations between committee members, his office and the Justice Department.

Among the questions committee members said they hope to ask: Why didn’t Mueller charge Trump? Did the administration pressure the special counsel at all? What communications has Mueller had with Attorney General William Barr, who summarized the counsel’s conclusions in a March letter — conclusions Mueller later suggested did not completely reflect his findings?

Nadler said last week’s impeachment vote would have “no effect” on the Judiciary Committee’s work.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES, House Democratic Caucus chairman

Jeffries is regarded as the party’s leading House up-and-comer. At age 48, the New York Democrat is roughly 30 years or more younger than the top three House Democratic leaders.

He is a Judiciary Committee member who is careful to stick to the leadership line.

Jeffries detailed the issues he wants addressed when Mueller testifies.

“One, Russia attacked our democracy and interfered with the 2016 presidential election for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton,” he told reporters.

He also wants to probe reports that “the Trump campaign up to the highest levels including but not limited to the candidate himself welcomed that assistance.”

Jeffries wants to raise questions about possible Trump obstruction. “When a counterintelligence and a criminal investigation was launched into this unprecedented attack on our democracy by a foreign enemy spearheaded by a brutal dictator named Vladimir Putin the Trump campaign or the Trump administration appeared to have engaged in obstruction of justice,” Jeffries said.

EMANUEL CLEAVER, senior Congressional Black Caucus member

Cleaver has repeatedly said he’ll make his decision about whether to support impeachment after Mueller testifies before Congress — a line the congressman has continued to use even after Mueller said his testimony would not go beyond the content of his report.

Cleaver, 74, is a mentor to younger members, respected for his political acumen. The eight-term Democrat’s district stretches from the urban core of Kansas City, where Trump is unpopular, to rural farm towns with a strong base of GOP-leaning voters.

He told McClatchy he is “increasingly frustrated” by the lack of White House cooperation with congressional investigations of administration officials.

But asked if he backed an impeachment inquiry, he said, “Not yet. I want to listen to the testimony.”

While Mueller is likely to not deviate from his report, Cleaver nevertheless said, “I do believe there is information that if the thinking, objective public knew would cause the situation to flip.” He did not say what information that might be.

JOE CUNNINGHAM of South Carolina

People in the audience at a recent town hall meeting at Summerville High School wanted to know why Cunningham was not joining calls to impeach the president.

Democrats should not rush to jump to conclusions based on tweets and popular opinion without first letting House committees complete their investigations, said the freshman Democrat. Trump won Cunningham’s district by 13 percentage points.

“For the people who voted for President Trump, to feel like that vote was ripped away from them, without a sound and just basis and without a clear argument and without a clear understanding of all the facts, I think runs contrary to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

JOSH HARDER and TJ COX of California

The two freshmen Democrats both narrowly beat Republican incumbents in the purple districts of the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Impeachment is not a popular idea with them, though both said they thought investigations into the president were important. A Republican poll taken in Cox’s district last month showed a majority do not support impeachment.

Cox called the Mueller report “the beginning of a discussion on how to protect our democracy, not the end.”

Neither congressman wanted to discuss impeachment proceedings, not in districts where water policy, health care and maintaining and creating jobs are major issues.

“The Mueller report made it clear there are serious ethical violations and still many unanswered questions,” Harder said. “We have to get to the bottom of what happened and we need more transparency and accountability from Washington, especially from the White House.”

Tom Barton of The State in South Carolina, Bryan Lowry, Emma Dumain and Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.