Robert Mueller is not an eloquent man. Speaking Wednesday before hearings of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, the former special counsel was often halting and distant. He was prone to give brief blurts of answers that merely affirmed or denied summaries that his questioners provided of material already in his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Even when Congressman Mike Quigley managed to elicit some critical words from Mueller on the Trump administration’s handling of Wikileaks, they took an indirect form. To say these actions were “problematic is an understatement,” Mueller said, adding that they were worthy of investigation.
There was one exception to Mueller’s taciturnity. Asked by Congresswoman Jackie Speier what he wanted the public to “glean” from the report, Mueller gave a rare display of his rhetorical skills, saying, “We spent substantial time ensuring the integrity of the report, understanding it would be a living message to those who come after us. But it also is a signal, a flag, to those of us who have some responsibility in this area, to exercise those responsibilities swiftly.”
If Mueller’s words were meant as a clarion call for impeachment, they almost certainly fell on ears that don’t want to listen. The one figure who could rally the House Democrats to impeachment is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and she has made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in pursuing that path. Seemingly motivated by her sincere belief that impeachment would be a political loser for Democrats, and particularly for vulnerable congressional seats in swing districts, Pelosi has put her foot firmly on the brakes.
Wednesday’s hearings won’t change the fundamental dynamic that has been in place since the release of the redacted Mueller report in April. Mueller presented a very clear-cut case for impeaching Trump on grounds of obstruction of justice, and perhaps also for the outreach made to Russia—which, while it did not amount to a criminal conspiracy, was certainly unethical. But, following Pelosi’s leadership, most congressional Democrats have decided to forgo impeachment and leave the decision to oust Trump to the 2020 electorate.
On the day of Mueller’s testimony, a few more members of Congress joined the impeachment bandwagon, including Lucille Roybal-Allard, Lori Trahan, Andre Carson, and Julia Brownley. But the impeachment brigade remains a minority of under 100 in Congress, and is unlikely to reach critical mass soon.
That means Mueller’s testimony is likely to have an impact not in articles of impeachment but on the campaign trial. Indeed, both parties used the hearings to craft narratives that they can take to the electorate. On the Democratic side, the goal was to get Mueller to affirm all the damaging findings against Trump. On the Republican side, the agenda was to spin conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the origins of the investigation—a technique of exoneration often used in criminal defense cases.
Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was the most effective of the Democrats in eliciting answers that painted a grim picture of Trump’s actions.
SCHIFF: Trump and his campaign welcomed and encouraged Russian interference?
SCHIFF: And then Trump and his campaign lied about it to cover it up?
Further along, this exchange occurred:
SCHIFF: I gather you believe knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do.
MUELLER: And a crime in given circumstances.
SCHIFF: …also unpatriotic.
The Republicans, for their part, did not want to talk about Russia and Paul Manafort. Instead, GOP members of Congress focused on trying to make a case that the whole Mueller investigation was flawed from the beginning because it was based on the Steele Dossier and alleged entrapment efforts led by foreign intelligence services supposedly in cahoots with the Clinton campaign. Much of the questioning by Republican members of Congress would make no sense to general viewers, since it was about the intricacies of this conspiracy theory. But to those who watch Fox News or get their information from right-wing sites, the hearings provided much fodder for their worldview.
With Mueller’s testimony, we get a preview of the coming election. Democrats will milk the Mueller report for damaging information, while Republicans will spin a conspiracy theory to undermine this narrative.