Let’s not beat around the bush — or as they say in the Mueller hearings, refer to the report — Robert Mueller’s testimony was a disaster for anyone rooting for Donald Trump to be impeached.
And, for that matter, it wasn’t all that good for truth, justice or the until-recently-American Way either.
Mueller had warned House Democrats that he didn’t want to testify, that he wouldn’t say anything beyond what was already in the report, that the 448-page report should, in fact, speak for itself. But Democrats subpoenaed Mueller anyway, and the result was worse than anyone imagined.
If you listened very carefully to Mueller’s entire testimony, if you weren’t distracted by his sometimes stumbling and at times confused answers, if you reconciled yourself to the fact that nearly every Republican on both committees seemed oddly unconcerned by Russia’s obvious election interference, if you ignored Devin Nunes’s bizarre conspiracy theory, you might have heard Mueller basically contradict most of what Trump has ever said about the Russia investigation.
The problem is, listening carefully is not what most voters do, and certainly not what most politicians worry about voters doing.
Mueller seemed to have problems hearing the questions. His performance improved somewhat by the afternoon hearing, but how many stuck around for the second game of the doubleheader?
Still, there were moments: Mueller said — but often with one-word answers — that there was no witch hunt, that Russia did try to help Trump win the election, that the Trump team actively welcomed the help, that Trump’s praise of Wikileaks was “problematic,” that Trump advised his aides to lie about a coverup, that Trump “generally” didn’t answer Mueller’s written questions truthfully, that the threat of a repeat Russian performance in 2020 is looming and not nearly enough is being done to address it.
And the headline could have been — but probably won’t be — that, as Mueller said, the report did not “exonerate” Trump despite Trump’s insistence that it does. It didn’t clear Trump of conspiracy either. And then there was the question by Colorado’s own Ken Buck, in which he allowed Mueller to confirm that Trump could, in fact, be indicted for obstruction of justice once he leaves office, which seemed to shock Buck and comfort, I’d guess, at least 150 million Americans.
For the most part, though, we watched Mueller deflecting questions. Maybe the shorter news clips will look better for Mueller, but I doubt it. According to NBC News, where someone actually kept count, Mueller deflected or opted not to answer 198 questions. And most of what we did learn — or what was at least confirmed — came from leading questions, with Mueller answering “yes.” In one case, it seemed as if he was saying that he would have indicted Trump if the rules had allowed him to — but he had to walk that back.
But it’s all in the report. Please read it. It was my job as a journalist to read it. I’d say it’s everyone’s job as a citizen.
I understand Mueller’s reluctance to frame a report that is so obviously damning. He presented the evidence and says it’s now for others to decide where it should lead. He wouldn’t discuss impeachment. He wouldn’t even say the word.
And yes, in his investigation, he was restricted by the Justice Department ruling that a president couldn’t be indicted while in office. He said he didn’t subpoena Trump, who took only written questions, to testify in person because Trump would take the subpoena to court and who knows how long it would be before the issue would be resolved.
What I don’t understand was the time he spent listening to Republicans toss outrageous conspiracy theories out there — it sounded at times like a Breitbart editorial meeting — and Mueller saying something like, “I can’t say that I necessarily agree with your analysis.”
In the end, if the report got much of it right, Mueller still got it wrong. What he needed to do — what I would say, Mueller was obligated to do — was more, much more. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein put it this way in a tweet: “Mueller has displayed a crimped understanding of his civic obligations. He has accepted essentially no responsibility for helping public understand his report, beyond the dense legalistic language in the document itself.”
If few people understand the details or even the essence of the report, if the attorney general’s misleading summary was allowed to stand, then that’s a failure. As Trump could tell him, Mueller needed to sell the report because, according to the polls, not many are buying. If you read it, there’s not much question that the result of the probe was sufficient for an impeachment inquiry to begin. But in the last poll I saw, only 21% of Americans believed Trump should be impeached.
The hearings were a missed opportunity for Democrats, and Trump, when not taking victory laps around the Oval Office TV, was tweeting out a thank-you note to Democrats for holding the hearings. And even though this was a setback for Democrats, the calculus hasn’t changed for Nancy Pelosi. She didn’t want an impeachment inquiry before the hearings and she doesn’t want one now. In any case, the timing is now an issue.
The lengthy August recess begins soon. Even if the courts eventually rule on Trump’s effort to prevent former aides from testifying before Congress, the emphasis will have shifted by then, and not just to Trump’s next Twitter controversy.
The closer we get to the Iowa caucuses, the more Democrats will be consumed by the race to nominate a Trump opponent. One thing I’m sure of, no one will be drafting Mueller this time.