It was clear, heading into today’s pair of congressional hearings starring former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that he wouldn’t provide the death blow to Trump’s presidency. It was not as clear how greatly his testimony would actually damage the momentum for impeachment in the House.
Over several hours of questioning, Mueller—as he has always indicated he would if he were called to testify—refused to answer questions about the investigation outside the scope of what was written in the report. This format not only hamstrung Mueller and the Democrats asking him questions—leaving them to essentially plead with him to restate the logical conclusions of the report—but also freed up the biggest hacks in the Republican caucus to take screaming potshots at him and the Democrats over questions they knew he couldn’t answer.
Much of the coverage today has focused on Mueller’s demeanor during the hearings, or the small soundbites he did toss out, such as saying his investigation wasn’t a “witch hunt” (Did we expect him to say any differently?), that “problematic is an understatement” regarding Trump’s embrace of Wikileaks (OK), and that witnesses repeatedly lied (something we already knew).
Much of this was noise, though. The one useful thing Mueller did say—in response to a question from California Rep. and chairman of the Wife Guy Caucus Ted Lieu—was that if Trump wasn’t a sitting president, he could have faced an indictment for obstruction of justice. But even this was short-lived, as Mueller immediately walked that back at the start of the Intelligence Committee hearing:
All throughout the hearings, House Democrats repeatedly closed their lines of questioning by stressing the point that no one is above the law. But the reason Trump wasn’t indicted—according to Mueller’s own words in the report—is because Justice Department guidance says a president cannot be indicted until after they leave office. Mueller himself reiterated this during the first hearing, separate from Lieu’s questioning:
This is not a law, or an executive order, or a Supreme Court decision. It’s an opinion written nearly 20 years ago by Randolph Moss, an assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration and current federal judge, arguing that “the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”
It may have been a bit awkward for Democrats to question the wisdom of this opinion, given that it was made in the wake of the Clinton sex scandal. But in avoiding the question, they missed an opportunity to show how much of a sham this whole thing is—that Trump could and still can commit federal crimes and be safe from prosecution as long as he’s in office.
After all, a frequent refrain of the Trump campaign was that any normal person would have gone to jail for what Hillary Clinton did by using a private email server for official government business. Here is an example where literally any person, save for Trump himself, would have been charged, and yet this two-decade-old memo is just accepted as the bedrock principle for why one of the most high-profile legal questions of the last decade—did the president obstruct justice?—just went unanswered after a two-year investigation, a 448-page report, and multiple congressional hearings. Why?
As House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff said at the close of the second hearing: “The difficulty with this is that we are all left to wonder whether the president is representing us or his financial interests.” Again: We are at the conclusion of a two-year investigation. Again: Why is this difficult?
Trump should not be the president for a multitude of reasons likely outside the scope of Mueller’s investigation, the principle of which being that he is directly responsible for the many, many human rights abuses happening at the border and in concentration camps around the country every single day. Trump and his underlings deserve cells in the Hague for this, but he’ll never be prosecuted for it, because Congress generally considers human rights abuses to come with the territory. So it goes.
And so the push for impeachment, or at least an impeachment inquiry, should continue, because if the Mueller report proved anything, it’s that the absolute only way Trump could be held accountable is by Congress. But having watched hours of this, it’s impossible to come to the conclusion that Mueller’s testimony today did anything but stifle the momentum for impeachment—providing yet another example of why the norms that Congress and DC writ large have been bound to for eons are not only the worst strategy to defeat Donald Trump, but are also actively helping him remain the most powerful person in the world.