Since Watergate, congressional hearings on juicy topics have been elevated to made-for-TV events. On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before members of the House, each hoping to electrify the country as Sen. Howard Baker did in 1973 when he asked about Richard Nixon: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
The goal of Democrats was to bring their Donald Trump narrative to life. They wanted Mueller’s testimony to be the must-see TV that sells impeachment to the nation. It didn’t happen. Mueller was disciplined and wooden in his responses. He stuck to his script. So members had to do all the work, and draw all the inferences themselves.
Having investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, Mueller completed a massive report. It confirmed Russian meddling but withheld judgment on whether Trump committed a crime. In the wake of the report, Mueller took an effective vow of silence, insisting his work should speak for itself.
This confounded committee members. Democrats tried to rally public support for impeachment and would have loved for Mueller to add his two cents why that should happen. Republicans wanted Mueller to turn the tables and confirm their suspicions that the real scandal lay elsewhere, among Democrats and diabolical plotters who instigated a “witch hunt” against Trump.
All of the committee members knew their specific, leading questions would be rebuffed because Mueller warned he would not go beyond the report’s findings or offer personal opinions. “I refer you to the report” and “That’s outside my purview” were among his many brief, hesitant responses to questions.
So Wednesday was a tactical, theatrical exercise in rhetorical questioning. For each of Mueller’s “I refer you to the report,” there was a partisan member of Congress demanding: “Isn’t it true that …?”
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In two hearings, members ostensibly were questioning Mueller but really, they were there to give speeches. They showboated. They tried to bully Mueller. Mostly, they answered their own questions by reading from the report to emphasize their own views and highlight anecdotes they wanted viewers at home to hear.
In the morning hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch asked Mueller why Trump wanted him fired. Mueller said he couldn’t answer, so Deutch filled in the blanks, quoting from the report and then summarizing: “You found evidence that the president wanted to fire you because you were investigating him for obstruction of justice.” Boom — if you accepted Deutch’s interpretation. If you disagreed, it’s likely because Trump didn’t fire Mueller, and there was no underlying crime of collusion (another Mueller finding), so how could there be obstruction of justice?
On the Republican side, members attacked the investigation, which they thought was biased because it didn’t look at Democrats’ activities. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner suggested Mueller’s investigation should have ended once he determined a sitting president couldn’t be indicted. “You’re not going to indict the president, then you continue fishing,” he said in an accusative tone.
Little has changed since Mueller released his report in April. Those who dislike and distrust Trump see it as evidence for impeachment. Trump supporters and Americans who simply want to move on see reason to declare the Mueller years over.
Democrats wanted to give impeachment efforts another shot on live TV, hoping for a sound bite from Mueller that would resonate. They relied on the sounds of their own voices to bloody the president and energize the impeachment cause. They failed.
Wednesday’s exercise was convoluted yet interesting. But it wasn’t a blockbuster.