Robert Mueller’s much anticipated congressional testimony wasn’t the end of the beginning as Democrats had hoped — the start of a new, more serious phase in the fight to impeach Trump — but very likely the beginning of the end.
Impeachment has struggled to get the support of Democratic members of Congress, it doesn’t rate in public opinion polls, and Robert Mueller did nothing to give it a jump-start with his testimony on Wednesday.
He stayed within the four corners of the fact and judgments already written down in his report. Rather than adding performative sizzle, he often knew less about his work product than his interlocutors on the right and on the left, and he regularly asked for questions to be repeated. He didn’t even attempt to answer what is the precedent or authority for his not-exonerated standard, even though Republicans were obviously going to press him on it. If this had been a confirmation hearing, he would have flunked.
It’s just as well that Mueller didn’t perform the function that Democrats hoped he would. He’s already violated, at minimum, the spirit of the special-counsel regulations that were meant to closely tether special counsels to standard Justice Department operating procedures rather than empower them to serve up de facto impeachment referrals to Congress. This is what Mueller’s office did anyway (with Justice Department officials hesitant to exercise proper supervision lest they, too, be accused of obstruction of justice). It’s even more inappropriate for a special counsel to go and talk about the conduct of someone, in this case, the president of the United States, who hasn’t been indicted or even accused of a crime.
Trump’s critics say that the only thing that stopped Mueller from charging Trump was the Office of Legal Counsel guidance against indicting a sitting president. They briefly got their hopes up when the special counsel seemed to say as much, in an exchange with Representative Ted Lieu, but Mueller had been unclear and revised and extended his remarks. As the report says, he never reached a judgment on whether or not Trump has committed the crime of obstruction.
Where does this leave us? If Democrats are going to impeach Trump, they will now have to do so without the hope of Mueller’s making their case for them — and with less hope than ever of rallying most of the public. As for the Republicans, they will understandably be even more motivated to learn more about the origins and the conduct of the investigation, given that Mueller performed more like a poorly briefed figurehead for a staff-driven operation rather than its leader.
Of course, Mueller’s lackluster testimony doesn’t change anything about Trump’s underlying conduct, which isn’t, in our view, criminal or impeachable, though it often was untoward and dishonest. With an election less than 18 months away, though, most people believe that the voters can render a verdict on the president one way or the other without Jerry Nadler’s attempting to do it for them. Robert Mueller’s testimony didn’t change that calculus, nor should it.