Robert Mueller's testimony is too little, too late
In some other universe, this would be the week that Donald Trump's presidency begins to fail.
In that happier alternate reality, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller would testify this week before Congress about the Trump campaign's links with Russia in 2016 — and any other presidential wrongdoing his investigation had discovered along the way — and that testimony, offered on live TV, would be so devastating that Republicans and Democrats would join together to demand the impeachment of the president, kickstarting a process that would finally bring an end to our latest long national nightmare.
Unfortunately, we're stuck with our reality.
Mueller is expected to testify before two House committees on Wednesday. But given his resistance to making this appearance — and his sphinx-like demeanor during his only other public comments on the Russia investigation — it seems likely he'll do his level-best to avoid offering straight answers.
"For anybody hoping he's going to provide new information or evidence against the president, I think many people will be very disappointed," a former aide to Mueller told The Washington Post.
Which means that by the end of this week, any decision about Trump's fitness for office will be hot-potatoed right back to where it has always belonged: in the lap of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Given her reluctance to pursue an impeachment inquiry against the president, Mueller's testimony is unlikely to produce any tangible favorable results, either for Democrats or the American people.
It didn't have to be this way, of course.
Back in the spring — which in modern political terms was about two million years ago — I argued that Mueller's congressional testimony could well be devastating to Trump if it turned him into an "instant TV star by knocking down the central pillars of Trump's 'Russia hoax' narrative."
The key word there, though, was "instant." If Mueller's testimony had been offered when I wrote those words, instead of now, it might've had a bigger effect on the resulting national conversation. Instead, nearly three months have passed, and roughly four months have gone by since Attorney General William Barr released his first, misleading summary of Mueller's report to Congress and the public. Unless Mueller decides to make a spectacle of himself at this week's hearing — and he won't — the American public will probably figure that his testimony is old news, and tune him out as a result.
That's too bad, because Mueller's report really is devastating.
Did the special counsel find conclusive evidence that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia in its efforts to undermine the 2016 presidential election? No. But the report demonstrates that Trump and his advisers welcomed Russia's interference — and Trump has indicated he is fine if Russia interferes again in 2020. The report also offers multiple examples of how Trump repeatedly tried to obstruct Mueller's investigation. It certainly appears that Mueller intended his report to serve as an impeachment referral, even if he did not explicitly say so.
"The Constitution," he said rather pointedly in May, "requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing." It was about as close to a nudge-nudge wink-wink moment as you will get from Mueller. You can expect members of Congress — the Democratic ones, at least — to seek clarity on that point this week.
Not that it will matter all that much. Despite Mueller's nearly ostentatious deference to Congress on the president's fitness for office, Democrats led by Pelosi seem desperate to avoid an impeachment collision with Trump. That is somewhat understandable — even if the House of Representatives impeaches the president, it's unlikely the Republican-led Senate would convict him — but it mostly seems feckless.
Without a congressional willingness to act, a congressional oversight hearing is often just empty political theater. So this week's hearing is less likely to join great moments in televised congressional oversight — there will be no Oliver North brandishing a chestful of medals, no Howard Bake asking what the president knew and when he knew it. Instead, there is a good chance that Mueller's testimony will go down as a historical footnote. It is too little, too late. And that's a shame.