Rarely has a made-for-TV drama been such bad TV.
The much anticipated Robert Mueller hearings that were supposed to catalyze the impeachment drive against President Trump probably brought it to an effective end. The testimony represented the final installment of a years-long over-investment in Mueller by the Democrats and the media that finally went completely bust in his laconic, halting, uncertain performance.
All during the period of Mueller’s investigation and his public silence, he was built up as Eliot Ness and Leon Jaworski wrapped up into one, the dragon-slaying, history-making crusader of American justice who would put Donald Trump in his place, and perhaps in handcuffs. It turns out that he is the deus ex machina who failed.
With Mueller, it was always waiting till the next thing.
First, we needed to wait on Mueller’s purportedly explosive findings. Then, when those finding were disappointing, at least as rendered in Attorney General Bill Barr’s initial letter, we needed to wait on Mueller’s report.
The report did indeed include more damning details, but when it didn’t really move the needle politically, we needed to wait on the unredacted version.
Finally, we needed to wait on Mueller’s testimony, which, we were told, would potentially lend compelling TV moments to a lengthy report that not enough people read to have an impact.
This misread the reasons for the underwhelming political effect of the report, though. Mueller didn’t establish any meaningful coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, which was the alleged underlying offense. He did find all sorts of scheming against his investigation, although the obstruction case lacks force because the underlying offense isn’t there and, at the end of the day, Mueller completed his probe.
The hope Mueller would change the political dynamic was misplaced to begin with. It’s not the job of a special counsel, who under the regulations is supposed to act like a typical U.S. attorney, to give a dramatic, passionate, ratings-grabbing TV rendition of his work, so one side in a politically fraught controversy can regain momentum.
Rather than knocking anyone’s socks off, of course, Mueller’s testimony raised the question of whether the special counsel who had been puffed up by so many had really only been presiding over and lending his name to the investigation rather than actively running it. The press and Democrats gathered around Mueller’s hearing table trying to glean any newsworthy crumbs. They thought they had found one when Mueller told Rep. Ted Lieu in the morning that he didn’t indict Trump because of the Office of Legal Counsel guidance against indicting a sitting president. Since this would have contradicted everything Mueller had said before — i.e., that he didn’t reach the question of whether Trump should be indicted — it would have indeed been news. But Mueller had simply flubbed the answer.
Much was made of Rep. Jerry Nadler getting Mueller to say that Trump wasn’t exonerated. But this fact had been in the Barr findings letter at the very beginning.
It was always a mistake for Democrats to stake so much on Mueller, both by relying on his investigation to do the hard work of making the political case against Trump for them and by elevating him into an oracle who would pronounce authoritatively and unquestionably on the investigation.
At the end of the day, what does it matter what Mueller thinks about Trump’s culpability, or the OLC guidance, or the best reading of the obstruction statutes?
It’s up to Democrats to make their own judgment on all these matters. They can investigate or not and impeach or not, as they see fit. For too long, Mueller has been their crutch. Maybe now, they will finally see that he has let them down, and as duly elected members of Congress they should never have tried to subcontract their responsibilities to an inferior officer of the executive branch, who, like all of us, is a mere mortal.