Since Watergate, congressional hearings on juicy topics have been elevated to made-for-TV events.
On July 5, former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before members of the House, each hoping to electrify the country as Sen. Howard Baker did back in 1973 when he asked about Richard Nixon: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
The obvious challenge facing Democratic and Republican committee members July 5 was the stoic, reluctant demeanor of the witness. In other words, Mueller made for potentially boring television viewing.
Having investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, Mueller completed a massive report. It confirmed Russian meddling but withheld judgment on whether Trump committed a crime. In the wake of the report, Mueller took an effective vow of silence, insisting his work should speak for itself.
This confounded committee members. Democrats want to rally public support for impeachment and would have loved for Mueller to add his two cents why that should happen. Republicans would have loved Mueller to turn the tables and confirm their suspicions that the real scandal lay elsewhere, among Democrats and diabolical plotters who instigated a “witch hunt” against Trump.
Committee members knew their specific, leading questions about Trump would be rebuffed because Mueller warned he would not go beyond the report’s findings or offer personal opinions. “I refer you to the report” and “That’s outside my purview” were among his many brief, hesitant responses to questions.
But did you ever meet a member of Congress who couldn’t fill dead air time? We haven’t. So July 5 was a tactical, theatrical exercise in rhetorical questioning. For each of Mueller’s “I refer you to the report,” there was a partisan member of Congress demanding: “Isn’t it true that ... ?”
Committee members ostensibly were questioning Mueller but really, they were there to give speeches. They showboated. They tried to bully Mueller. Mostly, they answered their own questions by reading from the report to emphasize their own views and highlight anecdotes from the report they wanted viewers at home to hear. Really, that was the goal of the hearing: to win over viewers to their side — either that the Mueller report proves Trump committed obstruction and should be impeached, or a version of the opposite.
In the morning hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch asked Mueller why Trump wanted him fired. Mueller said he couldn’t answer, so Deutch filled in the blanks, quoting from the report and then summarizing: “You found evidence that the president wanted to fire you because you were investigating him for obstruction of justice.” Boom, if you accept Deutch’s interpretation. If you don’t, it’s likely because Trump didn’t fire Mueller, and there was no underlying crime of collusion (another Mueller finding), so how could there be obstruction of justice?
On the Republican side, members attacked the investigation, which they thought was biased because it didn’t look at Democrats’ activities. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner suggested Mueller’s investigation should have ended once he determined a sitting president couldn’t be indicted. “You’re not going to indict the president, then you continue fishing,” he said in an accusative tone.
Upon the Mueller report’s release in April, we said few observers would likely change their minds about the president: Those who dislike and distrust Trump would find evidence in the report for impeachment. Trump supporters and Americans who simply want to move on would see reason to declare the Mueller years over.
The Democrat-controlled Judiciary Committee wanted to give impeachment efforts another shot by turning Mueller’s report into a TV event, hoping for a sound bite from Mueller that would resonate. They knew most Americans haven’t read his long report. They also knew they wouldn’t get much from the former special counsel. So they relied on the sounds of their own voices.
In all likelihood, Democrats will fail in upending public opinion, which finds a majority of Americans opposing impeachment. The exercise was convoluted yet interesting. It wasn’t a blockbuster.
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