An optics disaster. “A stumblebum performance.” “Like watching a passionate conversation with an answering machine.” The denunciations of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before two congressional committees Wednesday were ample and merciless.
But at the end of a long day of sound and fury, Republicans and Democrats were just as entrenched in their polar-opposite assessments of Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference as when the probe began more than two years ago.
And the American people were left wondering what the point of it all was.
The Republicans felt Mueller’s five hours of testimony before the judiciary and intelligence committees underscored the refrain they’ve been singing for months more emphatically than they ever could have hoped: No collusion, no obstruction.
The Democrats insisted they got just the opposite: “An indictment of this administration’s cone of silence and their coverup,” in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s words.
Democrats ‘lost so big’: Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, watched it all with glee from a distance, tweeting emphatically throughout.
“The Democrats lost so big today. Their party is in shambles right now,” he said on the White House lawn as he departed for a fundraising event in West Virginia, where he was sure to be rewarded for his party’s routing of the proverbial witch-hunt.
“The Democrats had nothing, and now they have less than nothing.”
While Trump’s assessment might be wishful thinking, you didn’t have to be a Republican to see that Mueller’s stumbling answers, frequent requests to have questions repeated and inability to recall foundational facts and key sections of his own report did not add up to the performance the Democrats had promised when they vowed to bring his 448-page report “to life.”
“He provided such — what do you call it — uncomfortable clarity?” Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, a usually staunch defender of Democrats, said of Mueller, a lifelong Republican. “On optics, this was a disaster.”
Even David Axelrod, chief strategist for former Democratic Barack Obama, conceded the highly respected star prosecutor was “not as sharp” as when he last appeared before Congress six years ago.
This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.
Mueller is no James Comey
For Greg Brower, a former Republican lawmaker in Nevada and FBI liaison to Congress, the expectation that 74-year-old Mueller would be a strong witness who would deliver a riveting rendition of his findings and reignite the public’s outrage over the president’s conduct was never realistic.
“Even though he’s tried his share of cases … he’s just never been all that compelling or charismatic. It was never gonna be a Jim Comey-type performance,” he said, referring to the former FBI director whose 2017 firing by Trump prompted Mueller’s appointment and who participated in a similarly high-stakes hearing on Capitol Hill.
Brower, who worked under Comey at the FBI and is now in private practice, said while Wednesday’s hearing may have been a sideshow that won’t change any minds, he cautioned against throwing the baby out with the admittedly tepid bathwater.
“People should not decide that this is not a serious matter just because Robert Mueller didn’t make a compelling witness. The facts are still the facts,” he said.
For Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republicans’ chief attack dog on the judiciary committee when it came to furthering the narrative that the Mueller probe was a politically motivated campaign that was all too willing to accept the fruit of a poisoned tree, the facts were squarely in his party’s corner.
“I found director Mueller intellectually dishevelled, frequently confused and highly evasive on basic questions about the activities of Russians and their commingling of interests with people associated with Democrats in the anti-Trump movement,” he told reporters outside the hearing room.
“President Trump’s tenure in office may very well have been extended by four years as a consequence of this hearing.”
Investigations continue on both sides
The Democratic Party establishment certainly didn’t concede that fact, saying they would be carrying on with their broader investigation into the Trump campaign’s co-ordination with Russia and the president’s attempts to obstruct Mueller’s investigation.
Judiciary committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said the committee would be going to court this week to secure grand jury material and enforce a subpoena against former White House counsel Don McGahn, who, Mueller found, was asked by Trump to pressure former attorney general Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation.
The committee has authorized subpoenas for about 16 other individuals in Trump’s circle, including senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former communications director Hope Hicks.
The administration has thus far stymied those efforts, arguing aides cannot legally be compelled to testify about their work in the White House. It is also fighting the Democrats’ court attempts to obtain Trump’s tax records.
‘They’re doing it as we sit here’
One area where the two warring sides did manage to briefly come together was on Mueller’s bleak assessment that the Russians were most certainly still trying to undermine the integrity of the country’s electoral system.
“They’re doing it as we sit here — and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” a sullen Mueller said in response to questioning by Republican Will Hurd.
For Democratic strategist Alaina Beverly, who conceded Wednesday was not a “blockbuster” performance for her party, that should be the takeaway from Mueller’s testimony.
“His clear concern for the safety and security of the country with regard to the integrity of our elections, that came out clear and strong,” she said.
“That, hopefully, will propel a sense of urgency in terms of response — whether it be an impeachment inquiry or bipartisan legislation to shore up our election infrastructure.”
But while outside the hearing room Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal dangled the promise of “imminent action,” Pelosi said lawmakers would only proceed with impeachment once they had the “strongest possible hand.”
And while she didn’t say so explicitly, it was evident that Wednesday’s hearings did little to strengthen that hand. It may in fact have weakened it, despite Mueller’s reiteration that his findings did not exonerate the president and his affirmation that he could charge the president with obstruction of justice once he left office.
Still, Pelosi did leave the door open for an impeachment vote, even with a Republican majority in the Senate, whose majority vote is needed to remove the president.
“The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook,” she said.
There are also around 25 criminal cases that came of the Mueller probe still underway.
End of a chapter or more of the same?
The Republicans, meanwhile, are proceeding with their own investigations into the origins of the initial FBI investigation that began in July 2016.
They used the bulk of their time Wednesday raising such topics as the Steele dossier of intelligence on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia that the Republicans say the FBI used to obtain a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to carry out surveillance on policy aide Carter Page.
The fact they knew full well Mueller would not comment on any of it, since it predated his appointment, was proof to some of those watching that it was a red herring.
“There’s no evidence that the information was false, and there’s also no evidence Robert Mueller relied in any way on the evidence obtained with the FISA warrant,” said Barbara McQuade, a professor of law at the University of Michigan and a legal analyst for NBC News.
“And so it really strikes me as completely irrelevant to what Russia did or what the president and his campaign did.”
Those who had the patience to sit through all five hours of testimony would have heard much more devastating facts than those Republicans tried to highlight, she said, “about Russia’s attack on our country, about President Trump’s acts to welcome that help and about his efforts to conceal it from the American public.”
And so as Congress breaks for a six-week summer recess and Democrats gear up for two days of 2020 presidential candidate debates next week, the same partisan divides that have animated U.S. politics since the election of Trump hang over the U.S. capital — and by extension, the country.
Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said late Wednesday it is time America turns the page on the Mueller investigation.
“Today is the end of that chapter. Today is to put politics aside and put people first,” he said.
But all indications are that won’t be happening for at least the next 15 months, when the country gets a chance to truly decide whether it wants to close the book or keep reading.