In case you missed it during all the hand-wringing (or crowing) over the unsteady, understated performance of a man whose last congressional appearance was six years ago, that exchange between Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Special Counsel Robert Mueller was why the hearings happened yesterday.
Those expecting Mueller to ride a bolt of lightning into the hearing room like Thor were vocally disappointed after Wednesday’s long, slow journey through the Mueller report. The Republicans on the committees ranted and raved, while Democrats asked Mueller questions they knew he wouldn’t answer in order to get those questions on the record, and more importantly, on television.
Television was the reason Wednesday happened. Mueller made it abundantly clear that he would stay strictly within the bounds of his report before sitting down in those rooms, and he was Swiss-watch true to his word. If you found the hearings boring, it’s probably because you didn’t read the report like most of Congress and the country. Wednesday had to happen because, even in times of deep political and even existential crisis, vile television beats the meticulously compiled written word every day and twice on Sunday.
Speaking of which, here’s the report. The weekend is coming up. Give it a go.
Reading that in combination with Wednesday’s hearings will reveal that agents and agencies tied to the Russian government deliberately interfered with the 2016 presidential election in order to help Donald Trump win, that the Trump campaign knew this was happening and welcomed it, and that Trump personally obstructed justice on multiple occasions to thwart an investigation into that interference. All of that was on television yesterday, from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm, which means more people know about it today than they did on Tuesday.
Could the hearings have gone better? Of course. This is Congress, where failing upward is as natural as breathing. The common-sense suggestions made by myself and others — Democrats could have reordered the format to ask their questions back to back; they could have yielded their time to one or two members who are the most versed in the material; they could have yielded their time to a knowledgeable committee staffer; or they could have had the committee’s counsel ask the questions — were not heeded by the chairmen, leading to the choppy shoutfest that defined most of Wednesday’s affair.
To be fair, however, all the shouting took place on the Republican side of things, leading to a number of moments that would be considered career-ending humiliations if people like Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert and Devin Nunes were even partially capable of shame.
Nunes’ word-for-word parroting of Sean Hannity’s talking points was the stuff of gruesome legend. One required the Official Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory Codex to decipher Jordan’s rant; without it, Jordan appeared to be rage-reading random pages from the phonebook. Louie Gohmert, perhaps sensing he would never enjoy a bigger stage, very nearly launched his eyeballs out of his own skull as he achieved maximum Gohmertosity.
If you back away from all the hot media takes, Wednesday’s hearings were a subtle bit of business on the part of the Democrats.
The absent star of the entire day was former White House counsel Don McGahn, who was ordered by Trump to fire Mueller and was then ordered by Trump to lie about that order. This was obstruction compounded by obstruction, and Democrat after Democrat summoned McGahn’s name on Wednesday.
Time and again, Mueller confirmed the existence of obstruction represented by the exchanges between Trump and McGahn, setting the stage for a hearing to come featuring McGahn as the celebrity fact witness. Once again, this was all in the report. Once again, McGahn was repeatedly discussed in order to say his name into the television cameras as many times as possible.
“Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler is readying his next step: seeking to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, the person considered to be the potential linchpin of an obstruction of justice case against President Donald Trump,” reported NBC News on Tuesday. “McGahn is a key player in what Democrats believe is one of the clearest cases of obstruction of justice outlined in the report: Trump’s directive that he fire Mueller. The committee could move within days to request a court order to enforce its subpoena for documents and in-person testimony from McGahn.”
As for Mueller’s uneven performance and all the “bad optics” talk that followed — thanks again, Chuck Todd — the only genuinely “bad optics” I saw came by way of Democrats fleeing Mueller’s testimony because it didn’t come with fireworks and golden glitter shimmering down from the ceiling. The man didn’t want to be there and made that lack of desire plain beforehand, probably because he knew better than anyone that he was not capable of meeting the Elvis Presley expectations awaiting him.
Robert Mueller is not a hero. He is a lifelong Republican bureaucrat. Riding herd over a two-year investigation into criminality at the highest level of government, with all the attendant pressures, clearly took a toll on him.
Mueller did his job. His report is utterly damning, and the main reason why impeachment proceedings are not currently underway is because there is no political groundswell for it, partially because most of the country has not read the report. Speaker Pelosi’s anti-impeachment fever has been well-served by this phenomenon, these hearings were held in an attempt to overcome that, and Robert Mueller played his part to the furthest reasonable expectations.
For the record, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats did not need Robert Mueller to be Frampton Comes Alive on Wednesday to initiate official impeachment proceedings. They already have everything they need to open an inquiry, which incidentally would sweep aside every subpoena-denying administration argument about “no legislative purpose” with one stroke.
They have what they need, but are standing pat out of cowardly motivations that date back to the Reagan administration, which is no way to run a railroad. Look to Puerto Rico, Madam Speaker. Look hard.
Meanwhile, there is a clear path forward to impeachment, and there are members of Congress who are committed to following it. I strongly suspect there will be more hearings to follow, especially if Chairman Nadler can clear away the Trump administration’s ongoing court-bound obstruction and get McGahn under oath. The White House is claiming McGahn’s testimony is privileged, which is balderdash: No privilege exists when a client orders their attorney to break the law.
Of course, the GOP is pretending that the whole affair is officially over. Much was made yesterday about happy Republicans walking the Capitol halls after the hearings were concluded. Reports suggested the folks in the White House were dancing on air after Mueller’s performance.
Perhaps many of them really were over the moon after the doings on Wednesday, but Trump’s opinion is the only one that matters within the GOP ecosystem. Nunes, Gohmert, Jordan and the rest were playing to an audience of one yesterday, and if that audience was pleased by the outcome, he had a strange way of showing it.
“After live-tweeting through most of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony in Congress today, President Trump briefly took questions from reporters at the White House and promptly had a total meltdown,” reports Jack Crosbie for Splinter News. “Although Republicans and the conservative media were already doing victory laps over the testimony, Trump’s anger doesn’t seem like he feels he won this round.”
Interesting, that. It pains me to credit Trump with any form of tactical intelligence, but the man is where he is because he knows the power of television and how it can be manipulated. Perhaps he saw in Wednesday’s doings some daggers that were missed by the pundits and the politicians. Stranger things have happened, and will probably happen again tomorrow.
On to McGahn, and impeachment, I hope. Let’s get this show on the road.