The most common word in headlines across the country about the Robert Mueller hearings appears to be “disappointment.” Mueller, according to pundits, was “shaky” and “hesitant,” and Democrats are “disappointed” that he failed to provide the technicolor fireworks they were hoping to see.
Because all that Mueller did was confirm that Donald Trump made multiple serious efforts to obstruct justice, interfered with witnesses, lied on his written responses to the special counsel, and engaged in support for illegal activity. Along the way, Mueller reminded the nation that Trump’s campaign chair, campaign co-chair, personal attorney, national security advisor, and a pair of foreign policy specialists were all indicted and convicted. And he reminded everyone that Russian interference in the 2016 election was extensive and extreme, and that Russia was not just planning to do the same thing in 2020, but is doing the same thing right now.
So, gee, it’s too bad Mueller didn’t have anything big to say.
And it’s not as if there wasn’t genuine new information that came out of the hearings. For example, Mueller revealed the reason he didn’t subpoena Trump to testify: The White House rope-a-doped the investigation. For more than a year, Trump and his attorneys strung the investigation along, making it seem that they were just about to agree to limits under which Trump would testify. By the time the special counsel team realized that Trump was never going to sit in its chair voluntarily, it decided it was too late. Because the investigators knew Trump would fight the subpoena, and Mueller worried that that might cause the investigation to run into the next election cycle. That seems like huge news. Only it doesn’t seem to have garnered a single headline.
Though Mueller was reluctant to break from the script and confirm things that were not in the report, one area where he did get energized was in the discussion of WikiLeaks. Responding to Trump’s litany of praise for the site that paired with Russia to publish stolen documents, Mueller didn’t just stop at calling Trump’s actions “problematic,” but went on to say that Trump was providing “support for illegal activity.”
The media may not have gotten the moment that it wanted, but Robert Mueller definitely provided everything anyone could possibly want to begin an impeachment.
Some of the very best questioning in both sessions came from the committee chairs, Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff. Nadler did a fine job of gaining Mueller’s firm agreement on the facts that Trump had committed acts that were intended to derail the investigation, and that the failure to charge a criminal conspiracy did not mean that the Trump campaign hadn’t reached out to Russian contacts over 100 times. Schiff was even better in the afternoon, using his opening to effectively frame Trump’s actions as “disloyalty to country.” The back-and-forth between Schiff and Mueller made it clear just how extreme, and how unethical, the actions of Trump and many on his campaign really were.
Even with the constraints that Mueller put on his own actions, and the restraints that the DOJ imposed, there were some genuinely stand-out moments of testimony. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries did a razor-sharp job in demonstrating that Trump’s actions met every requirement for a charge of obstruction.
And Republican Ken Buck asked something that he should have already known, and discovered that Mueller absolutely believed that Trump could be charged when he leaves office, although Mueller did seem genuinely puzzled in later questioning when asked how to handle crimes that reached the statute of limitations while Trump was in office.
Finally, there was the moment when Rep. Ted Lieu got Mueller to declare that he would have indicted Trump were it not for those OLC instructions. Twice. Unfortunately, Mueller apparently got some panicked between-hearing communication from the DOJ, because he opened the second hearing by walking that moment back.
Some of the most interesting moments came in those things that Mueller would not answer. For example, Mueller would not say that no one in the Trump campaign was connected with stealing and publishing Democratic emails—and Republicans pushed hard to try and get that answer.
In response to Republicans talking about leaks, most of which seem to have occurred since Mueller turned the report over to Barr, Mueller denied that his team was the source of those leaks. Which suggests that it’s Barr with the leaky ship—and that some of those leaks might have been done intentionally to demean Mueller.
So it’s too bad Mueller was so hesitant, shaky, and failed to deliver. Because otherwise the media, and the Congress, might have to do something.