What the Mueller hearings did – and didn’t – accomplish

Why We Wrote This

If you’re looking for clarity, or a shift in public opinion, little was added to the record during Wednesday’s six-hour testimony by Robert Mueller. But the political parties may get some “highlight clips” for the 2020 campaign.

Chip Somodevilla/AP
Former special counsel Robert Mueller is sworn in before testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Capitol Hill on July 24, 2019, in Washington.

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What did Wednesday’s marathon questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller accomplish? For Democrats, the hearings were an opportunity to highlight elements of his report such as the lack of exoneration of the president on obstruction, the details of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the many contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Few Americans have read the report, polling shows

In reality, the hearings may have generated better clips for Republicans, who could string together moments of Mr. Mueller’s halting delivery and thus diminish the impact of his assertions about no exoneration for President Donald Trump. 

Ultimately, analysts expect, the hearings will change few if any minds. For Democrats who wanted to build momentum toward an impeachment inquiry, Wednesday was a bust. 

“The effort toward impeachment effectively collapses,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar. “It leaves the state of play politically where it was going in. If there was a big loser here, it was Mueller and his reputation.”

But, he adds, “the Republicans also weren’t able to do what they intended – to draw into question the entire enterprise, to show that it was corrupt from the beginning.” 

Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony Wednesday couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. 

Liberals had fantasized that the former special counsel would burst from the confines of his report, and say that he would have indicted President Donald Trump for obstruction, if not for Department of Justice guidelines barring indictment of a sitting president. 

Conservatives had yearned to get Mr. Mueller to admit that his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was unfounded and biased. 

Neither, of course, came to be. In six-plus hours of halting testimony, Mr. Mueller was cautious, often asking that a question be repeated, and, as promised, stuck to the four corners of the report. His answers were often simply a referral to the 448-page document or a polite “I’m not going to get into that.” 

Democrats frequently aimed toward yes or no responses in an effort to draw out points they wanted made. When House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked if he had “totally exonerated” President Trump on obstruction of justice, as the president frequently claims, Mr. Mueller was unequivocal. 

“No,” Mr. Mueller responded firmly. 

Later, he did make a flat assertion: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” meaning not exonerated. The former special counsel also affirmed that the president could, in theory, be indicted after leaving office. 

But Mr. Mueller’s less-than-robust performance sparked a new line of attack: that his two-year investigation was driven more by his team of investigators than by the man at the top. That will likely fuel Republican efforts to discredit those involved, many of them having previously been registered Democrats

Mr. Mueller was always a reluctant witness, compelled to testify by a subpoena from two committees – House Judiciary in the morning, House Intelligence in the afternoon. He stated in May that “the report is my testimony,” a futile effort to avoid Wednesday’s marathon of questioning.  

What did the hearings accomplish? For the Democrats, they were an opportunity to highlight elements of the report the public may not be aware of – such as the lack of exoneration of Mr. Trump on obstruction, the details of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the many contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Few Americans have read the report, in full or in part, polling shows

Wednesday’s hearings may have been less an exercise in “if you missed the book, watch the movie,” than an attempt by Democrats to make a highlight reel of clips for news coverage and campaign ads. In reality, the hearings may have generated better clips for Republicans, who could string together moments of Mr. Mueller’s halting delivery and thus diminish the impact of his assertions about no exoneration for Mr. Trump. 

Ultimately, analysts expect, the hearings will harden positions on both sides, and change few if any minds. For Democrats who wanted to build momentum toward an impeachment inquiry, Wednesday was a bust. 

“The effort toward impeachment effectively collapses,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It leaves the state of play politically where it was going in. If there was a big loser here, it was Mueller and his reputation. The conclusion broadly taken will be that his day has passed.”

But, he adds, “the Republicans also weren’t able to do what they intended – to draw into question the entire enterprise, to show that it was corrupt from the beginning.”  

For the Democrats eager to move toward impeachment, the stakes could not have been higher. Wednesday’s hearings were the last, best chance to spark such a move before the 2020 campaign floods the political arena. 

Going in, the hearings had more potential upside for the Republicans. Without a bombshell moment, Republicans – and Mr. Trump – could say, “Nothing to see here.” And it gave them airtime to promote their line of questioning on the origins of the investigation, the Steele dossier, and alleged bias among the investigators on Mr. Mueller’s team. 

Indeed, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee called Wednesday’s hearing “long overdue.” 

“We’ve had the truth for months – no American conspired to throw our elections,” said Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. “What we need today is to let that truth bring us confidence and closure.”

Mr. Trump had insisted he was so unconcerned about the Mueller hearings that he wasn’t going to pay much attention. But his Twitter feed suggested otherwise, as he put out a string of tweets on the investigation throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

In the afternoon session with the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Mueller opened by defending his work. “It is not a witch hunt,” he said.

But Trump defenders wouldn’t let go. “The witch hunt is not going to stop,” Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas told reporters between hearings. “It’s going to keep going through the next election.”

Democrats insist the day of hearings wasn’t a mistake. 

“They had to do it, because of the mischaracterization by Trump and all his people of what the report said,” says veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. 

After the Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats already pushing hard for impeachment were undaunted.

“We have enough evidence to move forward,” said Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas who introduced articles of impeachment in 2017 and again this month. This hearing was “not a seminal moment in time.”

Still, hopes that the hearings would jump-start an impeachment inquiry were likely doomed from the start. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked hard to keep her caucus in line and forestall impeachment. Before the hearings, the list of House Democrats favoring an inquiry stood at 92, well below half of their 235 members.

Speaker Pelosi has long argued impeachment would be divisive, potentially counterproductive politically, and pointless in the face of a Republican-run Senate that would not convict Mr. Trump and therefore not lead to his removal from office. The wiser path, she says, is to fight hard to defeat him at the ballot box next year. 

The next question is what, if any, effect the hearings may have on public opinion. Support for impeachment hearings was already declining – 21% in July versus 27% last month in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Even among Democrats, only 39% favored impeachment before Wednesday’s hearings. 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report. 

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