|CAROLINE BREHMAN / CQ ROLL CALL|
Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election with the eager help of Donald Trump's campaign and candidate himself may have been the crime of the young century. But as anticlimaxes go, the fallout from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's 22-month investigation, which found numerous instances in which President Trump tried to obstruct justice and ample reason to impeach and force him from office, has been something between a whimper and a sigh.
There was Trump lawn ornament Robert Barr's whitewash of Mueller's deeply incriminating final report, a ham-handed effort at concealment which quickly fell apart but most of the news media still swallowed whole. There was the confused and ineffectual Democratic response to the attorney general's handiwork. And then on Wednesday there was perhaps the mother of all anticlimaxes -- Mueller's halting testimony before two House committees.
"It was a game of chicken among chickens," as Slate's Dahlia Litchwick had surmised, not that anyone should have been surprised.
In his lone no-questions-allowed press briefing on May 29 on that 448-page final report, Mueller pointedly warned that if forced to testify before Congress, he would not say anything beyond what the report said.
And when all was said and done after nearly seven hours of testimony before the Democratic-led House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, the now former special counsel did not elaborate with precious few and largely meaningless exceptions, hewing to a letter from Barr written at Mueller's request instructing him to not answer a wide variety of questions about his investigation, which the AG asserted is covered by executive privilege, an egregious frontal assault on the Constitution and congressional oversight.
As he had at that briefing, Mueller reiterated that:
* Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 election through hacking and a social media disinformation blitz.
* The campaign welcomed the Russian interference but there was insufficient evidence that it conspired or coordinated with Moscow.
* If he did not believe Trump committed a crime, he would have said so, but neither was Trump exonerated.
* While a sitting president cannot be indicted, Congress has a follow-up role and Trump could be indicted after leaving office.
* Many countries are developing capabilities to meddle in the 2020 election, and Russia is expected to do so.
If there was a "highlight" to a day characterized by Mueller's clipped one-and two-word answers, it came when he said flatly, "It is not a witch hunt," after he was asked by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff if Trump's repeated statements about his investigation were accurate.
Mueller's most pointed criticism of Trump came when he said he found Trump's repeated statements during the campaign praising WikiLeaks for releasing Democratic emails hacked by a Russian intelligence service to be disturbing.
"Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal behavior," Mueller said in a rare if muddled elaboration.
Schiff and other Democrats on the two committees picked at Mueller and probed his clipped responses in a largely fruitless effort to get him to expand on his report, and on the rare occasions that he offered a fuller answer it usually was to parse words. Or in one instance to undo what he had said.
Representative Ted Lieu of the Judiciary Committee asked Mueller during the morning session whether the reason he "did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC [Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel] opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president."
Mueller said that it was in what appeared to be the "gotcha" moment Democrats were waiting for, but then he backtracked.
"That is not the correct way to say it," Mueller said of Lieu's description during the afternoon Intelligence Committee session. "We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."
|SAUL LOEB / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
Republicans -- more loyal to party than country -- were predictably indignant.
Representative Devin Nunes, who dutifully carried Trump's water when Republicans controlled the Intelligence Committee before the Blue Wave midterm elections, called the hearings a "spectacle" and “public theater." He claimed Democrats had used Mueller's appearance as another attempt to find "collusion" between Trump and Russia.
"Like the Loch Ness monster they insist it's there even if no one can find it," Nunes said.
Mueller himself should not be immune from criticism. Far from it.
While admirably impartial, he was cautious to a fault over his 22-month investigation, declining to subpoena Trump, which "seemed an obvious and perfectly justified move that held the promise of breaking the investigation wide open," as legal analyst Harry Litman put it. "Mueller adhered to Marquis of Queensbury rules when the Trump camp -- including the president -- was applying a no-holds-barred cage fighters' approach, including vicious and false attacks."
Those "rules" included not venturing into areas in his report redacted by the Justice Department in his testimony.
These, among others, were:
* How extensively did longtime adviser Roger Stone coordinate WikiLeaks releases with the Trump campaign?
* Why did adviser Michael Flynn's sanctions discussions with the Russian ambassador not constitute a criminal conspiracy?
* Was the special counsel pressured to end his investigation by Barr while aspects of it were ongoing?
The cable news networks, as well as ABC, CBS and NBC, preempted regular programming to carry Mueller's testimony live. This was a tacit admission that they and the media as a whole had blown initial coverage of his report, by default giving credibility to Trumps"s "no collusion, obstruction" bloviating and the cavalcade of lies that flowed from that claim.
The extensive coverage of Mueller's testimony was "an opportunity . . . to remove a false, cartoon version of Mueller's investigation and to substitute a well-rendered portrait of a subject that could hardly be more important to the country," opined media critic Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post, and the post-hearing coverage in the liberal media was a brave if futile attempt to put a positive spin on the day although Mueller broke no new ground and obviously is tired of the whole mess.
"People aren't reading the book, but they will watch the movie," The New York Times wishfully declared in an editorial on the eve of the special counsel's swan song.
Perhaps so, but not likely. Trump and his allies remain masters at putting the best spin on the worst situations. He remains smugly in power (the Constitution allows him "to do whatever I want as president," he cavalierly declared on Tuesday) while the Democrats are in disarray, their investigative slow boat caught in a fog bank and what faint hope there is for impeachment fading away -- far, far away -- by the day. In fact, calls for impeachment are likely to diminish following Mueller's faltering performance.
Trump and his cadre sought to portray the hearings as a "disaster" for the Democrats, and in some respects they were, especially Mueller's walkback from that "gotcha" moment. That Vladimir Putin must also have had a good chuckle as his comrade in autocracy dodged another bullet.
To be sure, Mueller bombed. And seemed even more out of his time -- and a moment of great peril for America -- than usual. But the damage already had been done and that was not going to be undone by his belated and oh-so-pained testimony.
Click HERE for a searchable version of the Mueller report.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.