Mueller defends his investigation
In a pair of highly charged congressional hearings this week, special counsel Robert Mueller flatly denied that his report exonerated President Trump, and said that Trump and his campaign welcomed Russia’s election interference and that Trump and several aides repeatedly lied to cover up their activities. “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee, referring to the 10 instances described in the report where Trump tried to influence or stop the Russia investigation. But Mueller largely refused to go beyond the details and conclusions of his original report, which have been public for months.
Mueller, a reluctant witness who only agreed to testify publicly after being subpoenaed, emphasized that the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 presidential election is “among the most serious challenges to our democracy” he’s seen in his FBI and Justice Department career. That interference, he said, was “not a hoax,” and his investigation was “not a witch hunt.” But Mueller strenuously tried to avoid giving partisan ammunition to either Democrats or Republicans, and refused invitations to rehash the details, usually saying “I refer you to the report.” The Mueller report states that although Justice Department guidelines hold that a sitting president can’t be indicted, “other constitutional processes” could be used to hold the president accountable for his actions, with a brief reference to impeachment. When asked by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) if he was referring to impeachment, Mueller responded, “I’m not going to comment.” He did say, however, that Trump could be indicted after he leaves the White House.
Republicans aggressively accused Mueller of running a hopelessly biased investigation against Trump. GOP House members repeatedly questioned Mueller about the role of the Steele Dossier, a private intelligence report paid for by the Democratic Party, in launching the probe. Mueller did not answer any questions about the probe’s origins, on the grounds that the matter is already under investigation by the Department of Justice. In a rare moment of pushback, Mueller defended his team against accusations of partisan bias. “I have been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” Mueller said. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual.”
What the columnists said
If impeachment depended on Mueller’s testimony, then it’s “not happening,” said Ed Kilgore in NYMag.com. Many Democrats believe, with good reason, that the Mueller report contains more than enough evidence to impeach the president for obstruction of justice. But Mueller’s underwhelming appearance probably won’t do anything to galvanize the public in either direction. Looking worn and tired, Mueller retreated repeatedly into “legally necessary but unattractive evasions like ‘I won’t get into that’ and ‘I would refer you to the report.’” It’s unclear what Democrats were trying to accomplish here, unless it was to take impeachment off the table.
Actually, Mueller accomplished something important, said Philip Bump in The Washington Post. He directly contradicted Trump’s claim that the investigation “cleared him of all wrongdoing,” including on possible collusion with the Russians. “We did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term,” Mueller said. He said there was not enough evidence to charge anyone with taking part in a criminal conspiracy with Russia—which he defined as an agreement to violate the law—but noted that “there may have been at least some evidence pointing to possible conspiracy.” Mueller even reiterated that Trump’s team hoped to benefit from Russian election interference, and that Russia sought to help Trump get elected. If the “no obstruction, no collusion mantra” wasn’t dead already, it should be now.
Oh please, said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Instead of the historic watershed liberals hoped for, Mueller’s testimony turned out to be a dud. Democrats believe they “scored big points by getting Mueller to say the president wasn’t exonerated.” But we already knew that. Mueller’s shambling performance was hard to watch, said Byron York in WashingtonExaminer.com. At times, he had to look up or be reminded of the details of his own report, raising the question of how much he was involved in writing it. “If Mueller was not fully in charge, that would direct attention to the staff he assembled for the investigation,” including Andrew Weissmann, a Democratic donor who attended Hillary Clinton’s Election Night party. It’s conflicts like that that prompted Trump to frequently deride Mueller’s team as “17 angry Democrats.”
Don’t lose sight of what’s important here, said Josh Marshall in TalkingPointsMemo.com. Mueller reiterated that President Trump and his campaign knew about and actively encouraged Russian election interference and hoped to benefit from it. “This is a massive betrayal of country. Whether that amounted to a statute crime is secondary.” Republican attempts to distract from that are laughable. Some GOP members excoriated Mueller for launching his investigation in the first place because Justice Department rules say that a sitting president cannot be indicted. So are they saying it would be better if Americans didn’t know about the Trump campaign’s involvement in Russia’s attack on our democracy?
President Trump and his allies are confident that Mueller’s testimony “will stop any momentum toward impeachment,” said Eliana Johnson and Melanie Zanona in Politico.com. Mueller’s “steely reputation” has cast a long shadow over the Trump administration, so the early reaction to his halting manner and hedged answers was euphoric. Trump gleefully tweeted that the hearings were “a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” There’s a silver lining for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Jennifer Haberkorn in the Los Angeles Times. The Democratic leader believes impeachment will backfire politically without broad, bipartisan support, and Mueller’s unexciting appearance may justify her stance. Pro-impeachment Democrats said they would “take stock of the situation” over the next week.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Getty (2), Newscom ■