Why you should care
Because the former special counsel’s appearance leaves the impeachment brigade at a crossroads.
What they need is a documentary. Sprinkle a few dramatic reenactments here, compelling witness testimony there, some ominous music and time-lapse photos of the White House with the sun going down. Maybe that would accomplish Democrats’ goal of getting people to care about the Mueller Report and swaying public opinion about impeaching the president. Hey, it worked on R. Kelly.
Instead, we got Wednesday. In his highly anticipated testimony before two U.S. House committees, former special counsel Robert Mueller haltingly referred his inquisitors to the text of the report in a thousand different ways and declined to read portions himself. The sphinxlike 74-year-old prosecutor did everything he could to avoid being interesting.
Texas Democrat Veronica Escobar even tried, without success, just to get Mueller to say the word “impeachment.”
He didn’t want to testify at all, and once he did was steadfast in his refusal to speak out of turn.
Because that’s what we’re all here for. This will-they-or-won’t-they discussion started the day the Democrats won the House in 2018 and is boiling over amid a summer of race-baiting.
In black and white, Mueller provided plenty for impeachment seekers to grasp on to, given the vague nature of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Donald Trump tried to impede Mueller’s investigation at various points as he tried to conceal the campaign’s contacts with Russians from the public. Or impeachers could sample from a varied non-Mueller menu — from Trump’s racist statements about four members of Congress to his payoffs to a porn actress to conceal an alleged affair, or how his company has benefited from his presidency — but House Democratic leaders remain opposed. Why? They want the public on their side first.
And Mueller is disinclined to deliver them easily.
He didn’t want to testify at all, and once he did was steadfast in his refusal to speak out of turn. “I’m not going to speak to that” and “I stand by what’s in the report” were among his favorite phrases. Perhaps the biggest news came in a one-word affirmative, when Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked Mueller if Trump could be indicted after he left office for obstruction of justice. “Yes,” Mueller replied.
At the same time, Mueller carefully reversed himself when he seemed to say that the sole reason he did not indict Trump was because he determined that legally he couldn’t indict a sitting president. Later in the day, Mueller clarified that he made no determination on Trump’s guilt.
Judiciary Committee Democrats aimed to highlight key portions of the report, reading and summarizing large chunks aloud. (Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee must have been thrilled to get the “I’m fucked” passage.) Mueller repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of his work, including his statement that he did not exonerate Trump.
There was a lot of dirt to cover, but the power of a Democrat reading something aloud and Mueller affirming “that’s correct” is muted. Mueller narrating the unflattering scenes himself, of Trump raging at Jeff Sessions or Don McGahn and trying to shut his probe down, would have made for better videos to post on social media and better clips for TV.
On the Intelligence Committee, there was a bit more variation in the questioning, with Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney of New York eliciting an explanation from Mueller on why he didn’t subpoena Trump for a sit-down interview. Mueller said he thought the president would fight it in court and the whole process would take too long, as they were wrapping up the investigation.
Meanwhile, Republicans tried to cast doubt on the investigation’s origins, seeking to make a star out of Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, who first spread word that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and has since disappeared. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio pressed Mueller on whether Mifsud was “Western intelligence or Russian intelligence.” Mueller declined to answer, also deflecting any and all questions about the so-called Steele dossier.
Mueller’s day of testimony was in its seventh hour when he was finally asked the question that should have been most important: How do we stop this from happening again? That came from Will Hurd of Texas, a former CIA officer and probably the swingiest of the swing-district Republicans. Mueller called for more coordination among intelligence agencies and warned that Russia and potentially other countries already have their eyes on 2020.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said of Russia. “And they expect to do it going into the next campaign.”
Mueller got most prickly with attacks on his staff. Several of Mueller’s lawyers had indeed given money to Democratic campaigns. Andrew Weissmann attended Hillary Clinton’s election night party in 2016. And Mueller was ready to go to bat for all of them. “What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job, and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity,” he said.
It was a flash of emotion, protecting his own. Mueller offered no such aid to the politicians doing the interrogation. With Congress leaving town at week’s end to spend August with their constituents, they’ll be sticking their fingers in the air to check the impeachment winds. It’s hard to imagine Wednesday’s theater leading to any changes in direction.