Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees Wednesday, where he stuck like glue to the contents of his report. It provided some valuable clarification of what the report actually says, which stands in stark contradiction to the agitprop of President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr, who both blatantly lied about what Mueller found.
But this raises the question of what Democrats were playing at with these hearings. Mueller provided some valuable theatrical moments, but nothing that wasn't already known.
So what happened? Mueller appeared hesitant and somewhat confused at first, repeatedly asking to hear questions again or directing people to read the report instead of stating answers clearly. Questions from Republicans like Louie Gohmert, Jim Jordan, and Devin Nunes that sought to undermine the credibility of the investigation were largely impenetrable for those unfamiliar with the Fox News Cinematic Universe (as David Roth puts it). And the format of five-minute question blocks for each member of the committees made for a herky-jerky proceeding, as they all scrambled to get their prepared questions out with very little follow-up. A single committee lawyer getting an entire half hour or so would have been a lot more useful.
However, Democrats did get a number of important comments on the record. Mueller flatly contradicted Trump's screeching assertions about the report. When Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked: "The president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction, and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?" Mueller replied, "Correct, that is not what the report said." He also confirmed multiple instances in which Trump and his minions blatantly interfered with the investigation.
As time went on Mueller gained some confidence, and pushed back against Republican attacks. When Ken Buck (R-Colo.) demanded to know if Trump could be prosecuted after he left office, Mueller blandly replied "yes." He made clear that the (loony) Office of Legal Council opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted was at the least a significant factor in his decision not to indict Trump. When asked about Trump's praise of WikiLeaks during 2016 (as it was dribbling out hacked Democratic emails in a way calculated to inflict the maximum damage on the Clinton campaign), Mueller said, "problematic is an understatement."
All in all there were a number of moments that will at least make some decent campaign commercials next year. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that's all there will be.
As Mueller made very clear in his opening remarks, nothing he said wasn't already covered in his report. As I have previously argued, what he established there provides strong grounds for opening an impeachment inquiry — not to mention how Trump has flagrantly violated the Constitution by collecting foreign bribes and directing the White House budget into his own pockets, plus about 50 other outrageous scandals. Mueller's report was a perfect tee-up for a broader hearing into all that stuff.
But the Democratic leadership, it seems, is bent on avoiding impeachment at any cost. Instead of using the Mueller report to build a general case against Trump, and satisfy their base's demand to at least try to provide a check on his accelerating abuses, they hauled Mueller before the House to summarize his own report back to them like it's kindergarten story hour.
Elsewhere, Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, inexplicably dragged his feet for months before finally suing for Trump's tax returns. His authority to do so is unquestionable, and the returns are vital to understanding the extent of Trump's corruption and conflicts of interest, but then again that might add to the pressure to impeach Trump. Can't be having that! (Naturally, Trump just filed a countersuit to prevent New York from disclosing his state tax returns in line with a law the state government just passed.)
Democrats' plan appears to be to run out the clock in a defensive crouch, like some trapped rodent, hoping against hope that the voters rescue them from Trump in 2020. But this presents risks of its own, even if Democrats do win next year. As Mueller pointed out, there is a real (if slim, given Democratic cowardice) chance that Trump could be prosecuted after he leaves office. If he loses next November, there will be a three-month period where he still has all the powers of the presidency but is looking down the barrel of genuine consequences for the first time in his entire life.
God only knows what Trump might try under those conditions, but one thing is for sure: Nancy Pelosi is not going to do anything to stop him.