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Mueller report gives Democrats political ammunition but they are split on how to use it
[WASHINGTON] Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on his inquiry into Russia's role in the 2016 US election provided extensive details on President Donald Trump's efforts to thwart the probe, giving Democrats plenty of political ammunition against the Republican but no consensus on how to use it.
Mr Mueller's 448-page report, the product of a 22-month investigation, built a broad case that Mr Trump had committed obstruction of justice but stopped short of concluding he had committed a crime, although it did not exonerate him.
Mr Mueller noted Congress has the power to address whether Mr Trump violated the law, and Democrats quickly vowed to steam ahead with congressional investigations of the president.
But party leaders played down talk of impeachment just 18 months before the 2020 presidential election, even as some prominent members of the party's progressive wing, most notably US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, promised to push the idea.
"Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. I didn't campaign on it, & rarely discuss it unprompted," she said on Twitter. "But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep."
Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter: "There seems to be some confusion...This isn't a matter of legal interpretation; it's reading comprehension. The report doesn't say Congress should investigate obstruction now. It says Congress can make laws about obstruction under Article I powers."
Many of the report's findings are certain to be repeated on the campaign trail as Democrats make their case against Mr Trump's re-election, although Democratic presidential candidates were cautious in responding on Thursday.
Mr Mueller's report noted "numerous links" between the Russian government and Mr Trump's campaign and said the president's team "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts," referring to hacked Democratic emails.
But Mr Mueller, a former FBI director, concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that Mr Trump's campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
After the report's release, Mr Trump appeared to be in a celebratory mood. Mr Trump, having long described Mr Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt", on Thursday night told a crowd of well wishers in Florida where he will spend the weekend: "Game over folks, now it's back to work".
The report, with some portions blacked out to protect sensitive information, revealed details of how Mr Trump tried to force Mr Mueller's ouster, directed members of his administration to publicly vouch for his innocence and dangled a pardon to a former aide to try to prevent him from cooperating with the special counsel.
"The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests," the report stated.
The report said that when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Mr Trump in May 2017 that the Justice Department was appointing a special counsel to look into allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia, Mr Trump slumped back in his chair and said, "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm fucked."
Attorney General William Barr told a news conference Mr Mueller had detailed "10 episodes involving the president and discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense". Mr Barr concluded last month after receiving a confidential copy of Mr Mueller's report that Mr Trump had not actually committed a crime.
Any impeachment effort would start in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, but Mr Trump's removal would require the support of the Republican-led Senate - an unlikely outcome.
The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, said he would issue subpoenas to obtain the unredacted Mueller report and asked Mr Mueller to testify before the panel by May 23.
Mr Nadler told reporters in New York that Mr Mueller probably wrote the report with the intent of providing Congress a road map for future action, but the congressman said it was too early to talk about impeachment.
"Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment," House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told CNN.
The inquiry laid bare what the special counsel and US intelligence agencies have described as a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, denigrate 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Mr Trump, the Kremlin's preferred candidate. Russia has denied election interference.
The report said Mr Mueller accepted the longstanding Justice Department view that a sitting president cannot be indicted on criminal charges, while still recognising that a president can be criminally investigated.
In analysing whether Mr Trump obstructed justice, Mr Mueller looked at a series of actions by Mr Trump, including his attempts to remove Mr Mueller and limit the scope of his probe and efforts to prevent the public from knowing about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between senior campaign officials and Russians.
In June 2017, Mr Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, that Mr Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed, the report said. Mr McGahn did not carry out the order. Mr McGahn was home on a Saturday that month when Mr Trump called him at least twice.
"You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod," Mr McGahn recalled the president as saying, according to the report.
House Judiciary Democrat Jamie Raskin pointed to Mr Trump's effort to get Mr McGahn to fire Mr Mueller and then lie about being told to do so as an area of interest for lawmakers, and said Mr McGahn and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be valuable witnesses as the committee moves forward.