Mueller time was a waste of time

There was a hearing. But did we learn anything?

Robert Mueller.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images, tom-iurchenko/iStock, javarman3/iStock)

Some observers of Robert Mueller's testimony before two House committees on Wednesday will be tempted to compare the head of the special counsel investigation to an aging professor, shaking his head at the folly of students who have not done the reading. This is a bad analogy, in more sense than one.

In nearly seven hours of answering questions, Mueller frequently gave the impression that he was even less familiar with the contents of the special counsel's report than many of his interlocutors. (I doubt that this is actually the case, but it is amusing to think that not a single living American has read the Mueller report in its entirety, including Mueller.) Instead he dodged, deflected, pivoted, and, dare I say, obstructed. "Outside my purview" was his answer to virtually every question that did not refer to a specific page in the report. By the end of the afternoon he had moved on to "Out of our bailiwick." Over and over again he asked perfectly audible questions to be repeated. Either this man needs a hearing aid or he was deliberately wasting time.

I think it would be fair to say that Democrats did not have a good day. When even Louie Gohmert doesn't go totally off the rails, you know who's in control of a hearing. Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, made a number of bizarre errors, among them cutting Mueller off before he could say whether he agreed with the hundreds of current and former federal prosecutors who have called for Trump's impeachment for so-called "obstruction of justice."

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Mueller's testimony added nothing to our understanding of his investigation. All the old confusions remain. Not once did he come close to explaining the report's bizarre language about "exoneration," a task that prosecutors do not undertake. That section was the legal equivalent of a letter dropping charges for battery with the assertion that "We cannot conclude that Mr. Smith is not beating his wife." It was empty, question-begging rhetoric, and no amount of smug posturing can excuse or explain it away.

Meanwhile, we are still having the same boring conversations we were two years ago. The idea that a sitting president can be indicted goes against not only the most basic principles of American law but reason itself. All the authority of the federal government flows from the president. His being prosecuted by agents who enforce the law at his direction and discretion is absurd. For the same reason, the idea of a president being charged, even after having left office, with obstruction of justice makes no sense. The brain cannot "obstruct" the right or left arm. Firing Mueller would not have been a crime. The idea that discussing the possibility of doing so might be one beggars belief.

This is not right-wing judicial philosophy — it is as obvious as the color of the sky. One could wish that our head of government and our head of state were distinct persons, as they are in many other countries, monarchies and republics alike. It is pleasant to imagine a world in which we are indicting Prime Minister Trump while President Chuck Norris or His Imperial Highness Jeb stands aloof from the whole sordid business.

The sloppy thinking extends beyond matters of presidential authority and immunity. Mueller's comments towards the end of the afternoon suggested that he is as delusional as anyone in Washington about the reality of "Russian interference." If making a bunch of fake Twitter accounts — apparently without meaningfully affecting the outcome of the 2016 election — constitutes "hostile foreign engagement in our elections," it's not going away any time soon. The internet as we know it would have to disappear. Maybe instead of empty showboating hearings we could start asking ourselves whether the benefits of this technology as it currently exists outweigh the considerable, if infrequently acknowledged, costs.

Equally foolish was Mueller's repeated insistence, following the conclusion of his own report, that Russia sought to elect Trump for its own advantage. This is a weak misreading of Russian intentions, belied among other things by the fact that no president in the last 50 years has done more to escalate tensions with Moscow than the man currently in the White House. What our enemies actually sought was to undermine the foundations of American political life. This could have been accomplished by any number of means. As things stand, roughly half of the country remains convinced that our president is an illegitimate Manchurian candidate.

The Russians have gotten exactly what they wanted. Mueller and the Democrats gave it to them.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.