There was a time when Robert Mueller said very little, and the rare public pronouncements he did make meant everything.
On Wednesday morning, Mueller addressed the House Judiciary Committee in his first congressional testimony since concluding the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Mueller then addressed the House Intelligence Committee in the afternoon. For seven total hours, Mueller spoke about the investigation that, for 22 months, threatened to end Donald Trump’s presidency with a flurry of indictments and a fantastical arrest on the White House lawn. But Mueller’s testimony only underscored the partisan impasse that has rendered his report inactionable among Democrats and unintelligible among Republicans.
House Democrats invited Mueller to dispute Trump’s claims of “total exoneration” in the special counsel’s report, which did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians, but also declined to exculpate Trump of all claims of wrongdoing. They also sought to review Mueller’s contention that Trump can’t be criminally prosecuted for obstruction of justice—leaving to Congress the question of whether to pursue charges against Trump via impeachment. On July 12, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said, “Articles of impeachment are under consideration as part of the Committee’s investigation, although no final determination has been made.”
Nadler’s assurance contradicts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who routinely disputes the necessity, wisdom, and effectiveness of trying to impeach Trump (though Pelosi has also declined to take the threat “off the table”). The Democratic presidential candidates and the party’s activists mostly advocate for impeachment; Pelosi prefers to defeat Trump in the Electoral College 16 months from now. In half-heartedly humoring the demands for impeachment proceedings, Pelosi antagonizes Trump while also irritating the Democratic base, which is split, in the most recent polls, between support for impeachment and support for more conventional oversight hearings. Mueller’s testimony was, ostensibly, a powerful set piece in Pelosi’s oversight agenda.
On Wednesday, Republicans defended Trump in the extreme. Republicans on both House committees once again touted Mueller’s “exoneration” of the president while paradoxically maligning the motivation and quality of the investigation. Devin Nunes, the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, accused Democrats of “collusion” with the Russian government to undermine Trump’s candidacy, and other Republicans on the committee outlined strange and exhausting conspiracy theories about the Clinton campaign and the Justice Department. In the week before the House hearings, Republicans assembled a “war room” to develop and coordinate the party’s defense against Mueller’s testimony. “The report was clear,” a Trump campaign spokesman told Fox News. “No obstruction. No collusion. This is Democrats just being willing to say and do anything to keep this thing alive. They are so invested in this narrative.” In combative contrast, House Democrats rallied to Mueller’s defense, hoping to publicize—and dramatize—Mueller’s findings once again.
In his opening remarks for the day’s second hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff adapted Mueller’s 448-page report into a dramatic narrative pronouncement. “The story of the 2016 presidential election is also a story about disloyalty to country, about greed, and about lies,” Schiff began. Indeed, Mueller’s testimony was a long-anticipated plot point in “this narrative,” which has animated House Democrats in many press conferences and hearings while producing no real consequences for the Trump administration. Mueller’s testimony was three months in the making, but those three months since the report’s public release mark the anticlimax of his investigation; the Wednesday hearings weren’t a great culmination so much as a delirious last stand for House Democrats.
In the Judiciary hearing, Democratic Representative Veronica Escobar pressed Mueller to endorse impeachment as the ideal “constitutional” alternative to federal prosecution for Trump’s misconduct. “I’m not going to comment,” Mueller responded repeatedly. In exchanges with Democratic representatives (including Hakeem Jeffries and Joaquin Castro), Mueller repeatedly stressed, “I can’t adopt your characterization” about Trump’s business negotiations with Moscow. Mueller did “generally” agree with Democratic Representative Val Demings, who asked whether it was fair to say that Trump’s written responses were “inadequate” and “incomplete” and that “his answers showed that he wasn’t always being truthful.” Mueller otherwise declined to answer a couple of hundred questions from both parties in both sessions.
For the past year, Republicans have cultivated national ambivalence about Mueller, Trump, and Russia. On Wednesday, they exploited the ambivalence to characterize the investigation as a mess of unverifiable conjecture. But Pelosi cultivates a larger ambivalence about Trump, Russia, and congressional oversight. If the Justice Department declines to prosecute Trump, and Congress declines to impeach Trump, then what, exactly, do Democrats hope to achieve in these hearings? Mueller has already prosecuted a handful of Trump’s former senior aides—Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone—and so Congress is left to decide whether to pursue articles of impeachment against the president. Pelosi never specifies what revelations, if any, might implore her to favor pursuing impeachment. If Mueller had endorsed an impeachment effort, would Pelosi then follow suit? Her opposition to impeachment renders these hearings largely pointless in the political imagination. Pelosi’s plan, so much as she can be said to have a plan, begins and ends with these hearings. It is unclear what she wants anyone to do with even the most scandalous findings. Mueller has kicked the can to Pelosi, and now Pelosi appears to be kicking the can to voters in the 2020 presidential election.
For three months, Mueller proved reluctant to testify before Congress. On Sunday, The New York Times outlined his general doubts about congressional oversight. On Wednesday, Republicans answered the Russia fantasticism among Democrats with their own absurd ramblings about bit players Christopher Steele, Joseph Mifsud, and Peter Strzok. In these hearings, Congress proved weak, kooky, and useless. Democrats, in pointed questions about Trump’s “patriotism,” solicited innuendo from Mueller; Republicans, in rapid-fire questioning, solicited confusion. The Republicans didn’t need to humiliate Mueller so much as irradiate the Russia discourse beyond salvation. Together, the Democrats and Republicans made a spectacular mess of Mueller’s conclusions. Finally, Mueller spoke. Unfortunately, Congress spoke louder.
Thirty minutes into the hearings, Mueller’s face revealed his exhaustion. The Republicans ranted while the Democrats begged Mueller to lead impeachment proceedings against Trump—as if Mueller were speaker of the House.