Inside the White House, a muted response to Mueller but concern about creeping impeachment

Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "We're always prepared, but I don't think the American people deserve that."
Image: Trump returns to the White House in Washington
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump returned to the White House on Tuesday after a trip to Japan. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Hallie Jackson, Kasie Hunt, Heidi Przybyla and Peter Alexander

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller's statements Wednesday loom ominously over the White House, with one source close to President Donald Trump describing it as a "bad day" for him.

There are indications that pressure from the House Judiciary Committee in particular is building, with Chairman Jerrold Nadler's comments seeming to raise the stakes: "At this point, all options are on the table and nothing should be ruled out."

The White House is bracing for the possibility of impeachment. Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "We're always prepared, but I don't think the American people deserve that."

And while Mueller put the impeachment ball squarely in Congress' court, one senior administration official described the response Wednesday afternoon as "pretty muted." Aides received a heads-up Tuesday night about Mueller's remarks — and while they did not know the exact language of his statement until delivery, multiple officials downplayed the remarks as nothing new.

That attitude was echoed by a senior campaign official, who said the team was not surprised by anything Mueller said and instead tried to pivot to focus on investigating the investigators — clearly where they want to focus the conversation. The campaign official expects Mueller's statement will only help them in fundraising and rallying the base.

Mueller's first on-camera statement in more than two years appeared to change little in the political calculus on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue: The White House remains insistent the president has been exonerated, and House Democrats appear poised to stay the course in their aggressive investigations while stopping short of impeachment — for now.

On Capitol Hill, several sources suggested the tide was turning broadly and said launching impeachment proceedings could become inevitable as restlessness builds among members who support such proceedings.

That's even as House leaders continue to focus on pursuing investigations and pressing ahead with subpoena battles that are just heading to court, according to one ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It's not likely the House leadership will change any of their positions until at least next week, when members return from a Memorial Day recess. There are already 40 members open to impeachment proceedings — but it would take a groundswell to change Pelosi's strategy.

Two Democratic sources have complained members are not getting much guidance on what the plan is going forward and are left wondering what the unified message from the caucus should be.

And, according to three other Democratic congressional sources, Mueller's statement only heightens the caucus's desire to hear from him in a public setting — without saying whether they would be willing to go the subpoena route, according to a leadership aide pressed on how Congress will appeal to Mueller to get around his clear distaste for appearing before it.

The source put it this way: "There's so much more that we could talk about, that some would even argue that he would have a duty to come and talk to us. We need to make sure that no president, for instance, falsifies documents. … For those types of abuses of power, it would be great to hear from someone with that level of experience going forward."

But Nadler indicated he was satisfied with what he's already heard from the special counsel so far: "Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today."

On a parallel track, Democratic committee and leadership staff have been meeting this week about how to pursue "legislative fixes" to the abuses of power and security weaknesses outlined in the report.

It's why some suggest Mueller’s testimony could be useful.

"There is a lot of value he can add to our thinking about legislative fixes to what was uncovered in the report," another Democratic source said. "He could provide a lot of expertise and legal thinking about how we address some of these clear gulfs in the law uncovered by his report. For instance: 100-plus contacts between Russians and Trump officials? There is not a law requiring that to be reported to the FBI."

"It could be before Judiciary, but it could also be before Intel. Our preference is always to do it publicly."

Hans Nichols, Monica Alba and Alex Moe contributed.