"This is very, very painful." That assessment of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday didn't come from Republican allies of the president, nor from President Trump's Twitter account. That came from Barack Obama's former political adviser David Axelrod after watching the special counsel attempt to recall details from the investigation he headed. It wasn't the only worried observation from the other side of the aisle. By the time Mueller concluded his testimony at the House Judiciary Committee, Politico reported, the damage calculations were focused on Democrats and Mueller rather than Trump.
The day started out with little promise of a change in the status quo anyway. Mueller had made it clear in a televised statement two months ago that appearances before congressional committees would be a waste of time. By that point, the full report with a small number of redactions (around 8 percent of the total material) had been widely available for a month to anyone who wanted to read it. "The report is my testimony," Mueller said at the time and repeated at the start of the hearing. To go beyond it, Mueller declared in both instances, would be to violate Department of Justice protocols, a point which he bolstered by requesting and receiving a guidance letter from the DoJ to the same effect on Tuesday.
That still would have suited Democrats' purposes for Mueller's testimony. In the wake of Mueller's express desire not to be called to Congress, they argued that most Americans did not have the time or resources to unpack the nearly 500-page, two-volume final report from the special counsel investigation. Even some members of Congress admitted they hadn't read the report yet, and FBI Director Christopher Wray conceded the same thing in an unrelated hearing earlier in the week.
House Democrats hoped to get Mueller's authoritative voice in person to emphasize the findings of the report. In doing so, they argued, Mueller would breathe new life into the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and especially on obstruction of justice allegations raised by Mueller's report. They had grown frustrated by a lack of progress in their multiple investigations, The Washington Post reported late on Tuesday, and needed a kick-start for their investigative mandate. By focusing on those in the House Judiciary Committee and making use of Mueller's bearing and expertise, they hoped to turn public opinion around by providing the kind of public spectacle needed for a re-evaluation by voters.
And in that, at least, Democrats succeeded — but not in the way they intended. Starting almost immediately, and even with a copy of his report and his deputy at his side, Mueller seemed confused and unprepared. Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) asked Mueller to explain his position in the report on the differences and similarities between "collusion" and "conspiracy," and Mueller answered in direct contradiction to the report. Collins had to ask more than once for Mueller to clarify his position, which Mueller struggled to do.
It only got worse from there. Mueller had to repeatedly ask for questions to be restated from both sides of the panel. His choices on what could and could not be discussed looked more and more arbitrary as the morning progressed. When Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) challenged Mueller as to why his office never charged Kremlin-linked Professor Joseph Mifsud with obstruction after repeatedly lying to investigators while former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was charged for lying about Mifsud, Mueller at first didn't understand the reference. The more Mueller testified, the less he apparently knew about his own investigation.
The dramatic reading didn't help much, either. Mueller had apparently told House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that he would refuse to read his report aloud, so Democrats on the panel spent a significant amount of time doing it for Mueller. That left long stretches of time where Mueller's only contribution was an occasional "true" or "yes" to confirm what was written in the report. Instead of Mueller breathing life into the document, it looked more like a televised editing session.
Even the one win Democrats claimed evaporated by the afternoon. In an exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Mueller had appeared to agree with Lieu that the only reason Trump wasn't charged with obstruction was because of the decades-old finding by the Office of Legal Counsel that a sitting president cannot be indicted. That led to some high-fives among Trump's critics, who claimed it proved Trump had committed prosecutable obstruction of justice — until Mueller declared in his opening statement at the subsequent House Intelligence Committee meeting that Lieu was wrong. "As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening," Mueller backtracked, "we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."
By that time, however, the media outlets that had hyped Mueller's appearances offered autopsies for the effort. On NBC, which had five of its anchors covering the day's events, the consensus was that the hearing had been "a disaster," at least on "optics," as Chuck Todd concluded. MSNBC analyst Jeremy Bash criticized Mueller as "boring," "evasive," and "lost." Lester Holt added that the "pristine 10- to 15-second soundbite" Democrats needed to kick-start a popular move toward impeachment "probably didn't happen."
ABC's Terry Moran offered a more succinct observation — "Impeachment's over."
Even before Mueller concluded his testimony at the Intelligence Committee, Democrats began backpedaling away from him. Thirty minutes into his second hearing, Politico's Darren Samuelsohn published a report based on Democratic and DoJ sources that they may have known that Mueller was "not up" to testifying. "Take a break and listen on the radio, or close your eyes for a couple of minutes," a senior FBI official told Samuelsohn. "He sounds much older — his starched, tall, distinguished physical appearance helps a great deal."
That is not the spin one would expect if Mueller had given Democrats what they wanted. However, he might have given Democrats — especially Nancy Pelosi — exactly what they needed. Public support for impeachment, never high in the first place, has dramatically declined all year long. Yet, House Democrats have insisted on pursuing impeachment, with multiple committees conducting investigations into Trump, some of which repeat Mueller's own probe. Pelosi has tried to navigate those dangerous waters by steering her caucus away from impeachment while still leaving it as a possibility, but just a week ago Pelosi nearly lost control of the ship. Over a third of her caucus voted to begin impeachment proceedings on that vote, and if Mueller's testimony had delivered any kind of arguable advancement on that issue, Pelosi might have had to choose between her speaker position and her good judgment.
This outcome corroborates the wisdom in Pelosi's approach. If it puts an end to impeachment talk for good, then the rest of us will benefit, too — and Congress can get back to real work.