Six hours of “I refer you to what is written in the report” will not change the politics of firing Donald Trump
FOR TWO YEARS, Robert Mueller has loomed over American politics, nearly unseen and largely silent. Mr Mueller, who was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, after President Donald Trump sacked James Comey, the then-FBI director, stayed silent throughout the 22-month inquiry. In March, after indicting 34 people, executing 500 searches and issuing 2,800 subpoenas, his office submitted a 448-page report summarising its findings and then closed. Mr Mueller gave brief public remarks after the report’s release, stating that it would be inappropriate for him to testify before Congress because “the report is my testimony”. Despite that admonishment, on July 24th, Mr Mueller was hauled before two committees of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Democrats, and made to testify for six hours. He did not deviate much from his pledge.
Democrats were hoping Mr Mueller would recount the president’s misdeeds in clear, shareable sound bites that would interest the voting public again after the muted reception of the report. Although close associates of the president were charged with crimes over the course of the investigation, the report did not turn up proof of a conspiracy with Russia. The second half of the report detailed repeated efforts by the president to derail the investigation, including by trying to sack Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general at the time, so that Mr Mueller could be reined in. Because of an existing legal opinion stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the report did not reach a judgment on whether Mr Trump should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. The final sentence of the report notes that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
A hefty minority of the party hankering after impeachment, against the wishes of the Democratic leadership, had hoped to bolster their stalled case. They repeated the most damning excerpts of the report—especially one in which the president slumped in chair and said “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency”—hoping that the former special counsel would chime in and help them along. But Mr Mueller, who stammered, asked for questions to be repeated and answered questions with either clipped one-word replies or legalistic language did not help their case. He refused to read portions of the report aloud, for fear of becoming a political prop in their campaign adverts (some of which were uploaded online before he had left his chair)—leaving the various questioning congressmen to stage their own dramatic readings. Throughout much of the day it appeared that the congressmen were testifying to Mr Mueller, rather than the other way around.
For House Democrats this was deflating. An impeachment effort last week, called by Representative Al Green over the president’s racist remarks, died after being turned back by a majority of Democrats. It also comes after months of oversight authority—and the subpoena authority that comes with leadership of the House—have failed to turn up as much scandal as was expected at the start of the year. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of one of the committees, already has a primary challenger who charges that he has been too tame in his oversight of the administration.
The Republicans were almost uniformly in Trump-defence mode. Though they took nearly every speaking opportunity to assail Mr Mueller’s credibility and impartiality they did gleefully accept the conclusion that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities” without question. Several, including Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee, advanced the conspiracy theory that the entire affair had been a hoax concocted by Democrats and Russia. If an aim of congressional Democrats had been to present the public with a clear and convincing view of presidential misconduct, this seesawing from one sympathetic Democrat to the next Republican inquisitor will not have helped.
Stuck at the epicentre of a political storm, Mr Mueller sought to extricate himself as painlessly as possible. It was an understandable strategy. Political showmanship reigned in this congressional hearing, as it does in many. His few flashes of emotion came when discussing the prospect of recurring electoral interference. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s efforts to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” he said in his opening remarks. Later on, he remarked that “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign”. Nor did he sound hopeful that Congress would heed the warning. Asked whether the meddling of foreign governments in elections was a permanent feature of American politics, he answered: “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.”