Special Counsel Robert Mueller stood at a podium on the seventh floor of the Department of Justice on Wednesday and broke two years of silence. He repeated two things that were included in the report he submitted to Attorney General William Barr.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
“The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Taken together, this was a reiteration of the point he tried to convey in written form. The president committed crimes and it’s Congress’s job to figure out how to handle it.
This really shouldn’t be news to anyone, but there was something about him saying it in person that gave it more oomph. Now there are video clips that can be played ad nauseam on the news.
It’s doubtful that this was the primary reason Mueller decided to speak up, however, because the new information he provided was that he did not want to testify before Congress and will not have anything to say if he is compelled to testify: “The report is my testimony,” he said.
The performance left everyone unhappy. The White House had done their best to argue that he president did not obstruct justice and William Barr claimed to have cleared him of the charge. Mueller argued persuasively that due to existing DOJ policy, Barr could not have charged the president with a crime under any circumstances, so clearing him was essentially meaningless. Only Congress can arbitrate a president’s crimes.
The Democrats were frustrated to learn that Mueller would not willingly testify and if subpoenaed would say almost nothing beyond what was already included in his report. To get a sense of how badly this will sit with congressional Democrats, you can read the letter minority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent to chairman Lindsey Graham on May 8, 2019. As Nancy LeTourneau pointed out at the time, by listing 60 separate questions they wanted to ask Mueller, the Democrats demonstrated how critical it is for the country to hear from him.
Here’s a sampling of just two of those questions:
Why did the office elect not to pursue an interview with Donald Trump Jr. and did his refusal to be interviewed impact the investigation? If so, how?
To what degree was your investigation able to determine whether the Trump Tower Moscow project was part of an effort to gain influence over Donald Trump?
The first of those seems like something Mueller should and could answer without it violating any internal DOJ policy. The second one pertains to the counterintelligence investigation, and Mueller stated in his brief press appearance that his office has no role in determining what underlying materials of his investigation will be provided to Congress. In fact, Mueller was completely silent on the topic of the president’s behavior being explainable by compromise, blackmail, or financial considerations. It’s a bizarre oversight to have an investigation spurred by the president’s unorthodox pro-Russian behavior conclude without any reference to the subject.
Mueller’s strange sense of rectitude is putting everyone in a bind. He just made it harder for the Democrats to avoid an impeachment inquiry but denied them the one thing that would give that effort some momentum: his personal assessment in televised hearings. As for the Republicans, he dented their talking point that the president has been exonerated. Instead, they have to reckon with this:
“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
At a time when Mueller’s former colleagues at the FBI, DOJ, and the broader intelligence community are being accused of treasonous acts and threatened with the death penalty, you’d think Mueller would recognize his duty to be a little more forceful in his remarks. If the Deep State is engaged in a coup, this is a particularly weak effort. William Barr has been authorized to selectively declassify material in an effort to bolster the president’s case that he’s been a victim of a concerted effort to unjustly remove him from office. Yet, Mueller seems content to watch his colleagues become victims of a concocted crackdown.
The Democrats now have to decide whether to demand that Mueller testify, and if so, whether he should do so in public. They also have to decide if anything has changed as a result of Mueller’s press appearance that might lead them to begin an official impeachment inquiry.
As I said above, Mueller just made it both harder to resist impeachment and to turn public opinion in favor of impeachment. Nancy Pelosi is probably cursing him, and for good reason. Nonetheless, she should force him to testify in public. Even if he isn’t very responsive, just hearing him say in person what he wrote in his report will be beneficial to the public.
The White House will probably not be deterred in their effort to change the narrative from Trump and Russia’s crimes to the alleged crimes of James Comey, Andrew McCabe, John Brennan, and (yes!) Joe Biden.
Even if Mueller brought a peashooter to this knife fight, he did at least succeed in tossing everything up the air. We will have to see where things actually land before we’ll know if he did anything worthwhile.