Some Lessons From Mueller
Terry H. Schwadron
July 25, 2019
Despite the hype of anticipation, despite hope that something important could strike, despite apprehension over further splitting the country, Robert S. Mueller III managed, if haltingly with well over 100 deflections, to get through five hours of testimony before two Congressional hearings without really moving the public needle or changing minds about Donald Trump’s bad behavior.
In terms of what was learned, enough of Mueller’s sparse words emerged to conclude that Donald Trump has not been exonerated in the long-running Russia probe, despite what Trump boasts. But Mueller’s words were so carefully handled — even to the point of having Congress members themselves reading from the report so that he could say yes, that is generally correct, as to mute a lot of the power of the investigative ideas behind the words.
The very fact of the hearings did, however, resolve one issue: Mueller and Democrats can follow the rules — holding back so much so as to risk coming off as boring. They had to adhere strictly to the text of the Mueller Report — which did come out piecemeal.
Republicans, by contrast, don’t think they need to color inside the lines — winning is too important. For the GOP, rules apparently rules are optional; you can make up reasons for witnesses not to appear before Congress, for example, or you can repeatedly misstate “exoneration” for Donald Trump, or you can choose to assail the integrity of Mueller, who generally strikes everyone who has ever dealt with him as a straight-arrow without parallel.
So, rather than feeling anything like shame for a litany of bad behavior by his team, Donald Trump continued up to the start of the hearings — and during them — to attack Mueller for talking at all, Republicans were all over Mueller the investigator, and Atty. Gen. William P. Barr showed up with inappropriately limiting rules for Mueller the witness.
Going in, the impeachment bases were loaded, so to speak, and with the count at three-two the drama was high. The could be the Democrats’ last stand, unless the courts come through with direct orders for everyone involved to ignore the White House and fess up. All Mueller needed was a single to score for this week’s home team.
Instead, we got a disputed base on balls — the case against Trump as somewhere between bumbler and manipulator (legal or not) seemed to advance, but the case about Trump the conspirator not so much. Yes, in the Mueller telling, Trump lied — repeatedly — seemingly even in written submitted answers to the special counsel; Trump has not owned Russian interference in his own behalf; Trump misstated several direct, smaller points about the purpose of meetings and the like. The evidence, even if not presented in five-minute chunks of leading questions in which the legislators had to guess at the correct wording to draw a response, is too muddled. That was the inconclusive conclusion of the Mueller Report, and it got no better.
It all may go in the books as a righteous win for airing the contents of the Mueller Report, indeed a partial victory for House Democrats, but you won’t persuade anyone in the red hats. In the re-telling later, it will be Trump’s fortunes that advanced, they say.
Actually, the Republican congress members were able to persuade that it seemed crazy to spend so much time and so many pages of conclusions on un-prosecutable counts of criminal obstruction of justice.
Mueller will have to tell himself that he stuck to the straight and pure over any insistence that he actually help the rest of us declare that his work was important in prompting a resolution. In so doing, Mueller’s reticence ensures that his 448-page investigation report is more of a dust-collector than a defense of “small d” democratic inquiry.
After hours of deflecting, what do we have?
For sure, we have underscored that the most important element, that Russia interfered and continues to attempt interference in America’s electioneering, and the White House is not lifting a finger to help stop it. Instead, the continuing reliance on manipulating social media and denial of fact only helps to perpetuate what was wrong. You might better ask what we’re doing about it.
And we have established anew that the president is a blowhard who wrings the most favorable view of even adverse investigation to his advantage, particularly when he is sitting under the protection of a Senate Republican majority that will not turn on him and an attorney general bent on reinterpreting laws and regulations for Trump’s protection rather than for public trust.
For Trump himself, the combination of a lack of prosecutable liability for a sitting president and a boatload of confusion in the admissible fact, the campaign to stop witnesses from testifying, the insistence on turning this mess into a partisan political tug-of-war has made obstruction of justice seem a benefit of the presidency rather than a reason for jail time.
As Mueller slowly, painfully outlined through his restricted testimony, there was collusion, if not criminal conspiracy charges to bring, and there were attempts to block the investigation and witnesses, which the rest of the world outside the Trump White House calls obstruction of justice.
We knew that — from the book. Now we know it again.
This is not a witch hunt, as Trump would have it, or too many bites of the apple or presidential harassment; it is following the law.
What Democrats needed to pursue the possibility of impeachment here was a clear, clarion call of criminal wrong-doing, though there probably is enough to declare open an impeachment inquiry, allowing more legal latitude to get those errant witnesses in before the House committees. Even then, Senate Republicans are lined up to protect their man, regardless of what he has done.
Why Bob Mueller, the upholder of all things right and true, felt that protecting the processes of Justice Department review and propriety over direct advice to a divided Congress and nation about a president who lies and reinvents for self-promotion, about protecting the nation itself is a matter for continuing meditation.