WASHINGTON — President Trump was probably never going to be impeached by the House of Representatives before the 2020 elections. The testimony by Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, makes that a near certainty.
The absence of an electrifying Washington moment in Wednesday’s two-stage testimony by Mr. Mueller not only deprived Democrats of the crystallizing episode they needed to drive public opinion on impeachment, but it also meant Republicans had no reason to budge from their anti-impeachment stance. Pressure will continue from the left and could become so irresistible that the Judiciary Committee begins what it will call an impeachment inquiry, without a formal House vote.
But that is very different from a vote in the full House to formally declare that an elected president had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, for only the second time in history. (Andrew Johnson wasn’t elected.)
Pro-impeachment Democrats have always labored under the burden of Mr. Trump’s iron-fisted control over his own party. Breaks in the ranks of the president’s party always drove major congressional White House investigations in the past, including Watergate, Iran-contra and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Thirty-one Democrats voted with Republicans in October 1998 to open an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Clinton.
But the plain fact is that nothing Mr. Mueller could have said would have been sufficient to pry the vast majority of pro-Trump Republicans from their refusal to even consider that Mr. Trump acted illegally in trying to thwart a wide-ranging investigation into his actions.
Had a new disclosure or an elaboration on the special counsel’s report led even a handful of Republicans to rethink their positions, it would have bolstered the Democratic case for impeachment. Nothing of the sort took place. Mr. Mueller himself shied away from even uttering the I-word.
In the end, Republicans in the House and Senate dismissed the Mueller testimony and said that Democrats had done their cause serious damage in even bringing the special prosecutor before Congress.
“This should be the end of the chapter of this book that we put America through,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader.
The reason some Republican support was critical was that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has shown real reluctance to pursue impeachment, has consistently said that she would allow the House to take it up only if there was bipartisan sentiment to open an inquiry. “Bipartisan” in that sense doesn’t mean most Republicans would have to be on board, but at least a few public backers would be required to give a bipartisan veneer to the highly charged proceedings.
Absolutely none surfaced after the hearings.
The speaker made clear that she thought the best course for Democrats at the moment would be legal challenges to the president and his administration.
“My position has always been whatever decision we make in that regard would have to be done with our strongest possible hand, and we still have some outstanding matters in the courts,” Ms. Pelosi said after the back-to-back hearings. “It’s about the Congress, the Constitution and the courts. And we are fighting the president in the courts.”
Revelations of impeachable conduct in a legal proceeding could still be a game changer for Democrats if evidence surfaced that forced Ms. Pelosi’s hand and made a decision to impeach the president unavoidable. Mr. Mueller also made it clear in his bare-bones testimony that Mr. Trump had been “generally” untruthful with him and had committed other acts that no doubt would have led to congressional action against other presidents.
After all, the only elected president to be impeached, Mr. Clinton, was rung up by a House under control of the opposite party for lying under oath about sex, not about his campaign’s contacts with a hostile foreign power seeking to influence an election.
But the majority of House Democrats remain on the fence about impeachment — last week they split 137 to 95 against a symbolic impeachment vote. After the Mueller testimony, just one Democrat, Representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, immediately joined the call for at least beginning an impeachment inquiry, hardly the flood pro-impeachment lawmakers had hoped would be spurred by Mr. Mueller.
After a private party meeting, Ms. Pelosi pushed backed against the argument by some of her colleagues that the stage had been set for beginning an impeachment inquiry.
“I don’t know why they thought that,” said the speaker, who likes to say that Democrats are “painting a picture” of Mr. Trump’s misconduct.
Privately, top Democrats said they viewed Mr. Mueller’s terse and occasionally halting testimony as a “nothingburger” that did not move the impeachment needle at all.
After the hearings, Ms. Pelosi and her committee leaders will continue to pursue their strategy of investigating Mr. Trump, his campaign and his administration across several fronts, focusing on making an election-season case that the president is unfit for another term. They hope that favorable court rulings on such matters as forcing the I.R.S. to provide Mr. Trump’s tax returns to Congress will demonstrate to voters that the law is on their side.
“We have live cases in the courts,” Ms. Pelosi said. “We have some that are going forward.”
The leadership position defined by Ms. Pelosi is likely to draw more fire and ire from the left, with the aggressive and outspoken liberal wing of the party clamoring for the House majority to move much more aggressively against Mr. Trump. But Ms. Pelosi has shown convincingly that she is willing to take that heat if necessary to protect her more moderate Democrats from swing districts who are the reason the party has control of the House.
Democratic strategists believe that an effort to remove Mr. Trump — an effort that the president and congressional Republicans are certain to define as overtly partisan and unwarranted — could be fatal to those more moderate Democrats next year when Democrats now believe they have a very good chance of holding the House and winning the White House.
The calendar is also not working in favor of an impeachment proceeding. The House is set to break this week for its summer recess and will not return until Sept. 9, when it will be focused on trying to finish up the annual spending bills. Next stop: the Iowa caucuses in February. And the closer it gets to the 2020 elections, the more difficult it could be for House Democrats to push ahead with an impeachment on their own.
That’s not to say that the House could not make time for such a consequential action, and Ms. Pelosi will be under persistent and potentially increasing pressure to act, especially if pending court cases produce some damning facts or if the House succeeds in compelling damaging testimony from reluctant witnesses like Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel. But the current pace of the courts suggests those moments are months away, if not longer.
In the meantime, Mr. Mueller’s testimony did not provide an obvious galvanizing reason for the House to vote to open an impeachment inquiry, nor did it cause a breach among Republicans that could help Democrats move forward. As Mr. Mueller might say, impeachment for the moment seems beyond the purview of House Democrats.