Back in the old days, before cable television and streaming channels changed our viewing habits, the summer months were known as “rerun season”. Because no new programming was available, we were compelled to watch all the shows we had already seen in the hope that we could somehow be entertained by a plot line that was already familiar and dialogue we had already heard.
Now we just have Robert Mueller to fill the late July void before pre-season NFL football finally arrives to save us from abject boredom.
Mr. Mueller’s unwilling testimony this past Wednesday was much as expected. He sat and spoke in a deep voice that was void of inflection, his facial expression running the gamut from the studiously impassive to the merely inscrutable. The only surprise was that at times he seemed, quite frankly, either slightly befuddled or borderline bored as he read or responded to Congress.
Democrats asked leading questions searching for a justification—any at all—that will allow them to begin impeachment hearings against President Trump without looking like a pack of partisan political hacks angling for advantage during the run-up to the 2020 elections. Republicans focused their inquiries on those topics that would tend to discredit Mr. Mueller’s conduct of the two year-long “Russia-gate” investigation, jabbing at whether he played fast and loose with evidentiary standards in order to obtain FISA warrants and retained those with a clear political axes to grind—such as the infamous “FBI lovebirds”—on his staff, which may have tainted his investigative process. It was all, in the final analysis, a wearying and predictable spectacle that taught us little except that the U.S. Congress apparently has an amazing amount of free time on its hands for this sort of daytime soap opera.
Cable news pundits, of course, reacted like a school of sharks thrashing after a fresh dollop of bloody chum dropped in the ocean. Incendiary extrapolations, wild theories, conspiratorial rants, and insulting rhetoric were, not surprisingly, the next items on the menu. My only surprise is that someone on MSNBC did not breathlessly reveal that Mr. Mueller was using Morse code to surreptitiously blink “Donald Trump is a Russian spy” throughout his entire testimony. Those cable news guests and hosts who steered the discussion and analysis back to earth against all odds deserve our heartfelt thanks.
I honestly feel sorry for Mr. Mueller. I believe that he hoped his work would be a splendid example of investigative rectitude, a virtuous model to which others could aspire in the future. Unfortunately, he was attempting to navigate a leaky dinghy of relative sanity through a howling hurricane of extraordinary partisanship, distrust, and anger. His chances for success were virtually nil from the very start.
The weight he was expected to carry by Democrats, to find proof positive that Donald Trump is a Russian stooge put into office by way of inexplicable Kremlin chicanery, stretched both reason and credulity. By the same token, the expectation of Republicans that Mr. Mueller could operate a totally non-partisan investigation in a city as deeply Democratic as Washington, D.C. perhaps set the bar too high.
However, Mr. Mueller might have also erred by demonstrating some stunning naïveté regarding the motivations of those on his team. Just as Hillary Clinton launched her march to power by serving as a lawyer for the Democrats investigating Richard Nixon during Watergate in the early 1970’s, so it is certain that at least a few on Mr. Mueller’s staff saw this an the opportunity to launch their own budding careers into the stratosphere by serving on the Special Counsel team that “got” President Trump and ushered in a new era of Democratic electoral dominance.
This is not to say that Mr. Mueller’s Congressional testimony was entirely devoid of its moments of drama and pathos.
Mr. Mueller’s opening statement provided both despair and joy for Democrats anxious to paint Donald Trump as a felon as we proceed into what is certain to be one of the nastiest Presidential elections since 1860.
First, the despair…
“…. the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Darn! Any lingering hope for an immediate indictment is gone.
“…we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.”
Double darn! The Russian collusion narrative really is dead.
However, Mr. Mueller’s opening statement also gladdened the hearts of the Democrats looking for some bombshells to use against President Trump.
“….Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Super! This means we can still claim that Trump’s 2016 victory was the result of a Russian plot, and we can blame any hint that he might win in 2020 on continuing Russian interference in our elections.
“… we investigated a series of actions by the President towards the investigation. Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the President committed a crime. That was our decision then and it remains our decision today.”
No problem here! Mr. Mueller might be suggesting it could later be decided that Mr. Trump did commit a crime. This leaves the door open for—wait for it!—yet more investigations.
Of course, what the Democrats questioning Mr. Mueller wanted more than any other testimony was a clear and unequivocal statement that “no evidence” did not equal “innocent”, and this occurred early in the proceedings:
Congressman Nadler: “The report did not conclude that [Trump] did not commit obstruction of justice. Is that correct?”
Special Counsel Mueller: “No.”
Congressman Nadler: “And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?”
Special Counsel Mueller: “No.”
In the final analysis, both Republicans and Democrats obtained the sound bites they craved, and each party will be able to claim that truth, justice, and the American Way is on their side. However, until the long-awaited report of the conduct of Mr. Mueller’s investigation is finally issued by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, we have no way of knowing whether the narratives of the partisans on each side of this matter will be seriously scrambled.
We also have no way of knowing whether Nancy Pelosi will continue to be able to stave off the demands of many Congressional Democrats that President Trump be immediately impeached and frog marched out of The White House—preferably in handcuffs. Given that Democrats have staked so much energy and credibility on their continued accusations against him, they likely will need to initiate some type of action to both justify the fury that has engulfed them since 2016 and—perhaps more importantly—keep the left wing of the Party from openly revolting against their more moderate leadership.
This is all going to bubble and boil until either the passions burn out or some completely unexpected event forces an equally unexpected resolution