Really, there were Democrats angry with Special Counsel Robert Mueller for being Robert Mueller Wednesday morning before the House Judiciary Committee? Are we so unaccustomed to a modest public servant speaking honestly in a measured voice that it enrages us?
We know the day enraged the president, tweeting furiously before coming out in person after the hearings were done to call a reporter “fake news” for asking about Mueller’s assertion that Trump could be indicted like anyone else after leaving office.
Mueller took on a thankless task—a long, hard slog through the muck of Trump associates who rejected “honesty is the best policy” for “let’s see what’s the second-best policy,” as they weighed cooperating with the special counsel against the possibility of a pardon. Cable news hyped the now-retired special counsel’s appearance for days until there was no way to manage expectations.
Instead of 400-plus pages of homework titled Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, we were going to get Robert Mueller, Trump Hunter, saving the big game with Hail Mary passes in the fourth quarter.
But Mueller was never going to throw a long ball. He said as much when he promised he would have nothing more to say beyond his first few minutes at the podium: he spent two years investigating the Trump campaign, wrote a report detailing its crimes, including Trump's un-indictable ones, and delivered it, as the law required, to his superior.
That’s when the trouble started, but not because of Mueller. It's not his fault that William Barr is less the Attorney General for the United States than he is the attorney for Donald Trump, which Mueller more or less confirmed in answer to a particularly artful question.
In cruder terms, Barr's on the take, and everything he's done since Mueller produced his report confirms it. Trump wasn’t going to have himself another Jeff Sessions—quite the opposite.
Mueller still doesn’t believe it. It's not in his nature to suspect that a man who was his colleague and friend would have broken bad since the days when they worked together and marked their families’ milestones together. He's not one to absorb that Trump turns everyone he touches bad. In fact, he couldn't imagine that a man who'd taken an oath to uphold the Constitution would leap before the cameras knowing the first to (mis)characterize the report would be the one whose version of it would last. In the unlikely event Mueller was poised to change that, Barr, with a letter on the eve of the hearing, warned Mueller he would run afoul of Justice if he said much more than "Yes, if it was in the report."
And so Mueller did as Barr had instructed, and as Mueller always warned he would. Mueller now knows Barr is compromised—his "snitty" letter hinted so—but it's too late. An Oscar-winning group of actors giving boffo performances from a CliffsNotes version of Volume II didn't change the false narrative Barr provided, before anyone had read the namesake report that Mueller keeps saying is his testimony. Hearing House Democrats read bits out loud was just more proof that sometimes the movie isn’t better than the book.
It was a mistake for Democrats to put all their eggs, now past their sell-by date, in one basket. They’ve been way too credulous and polite. Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler wasted months arm-wrestling with Mueller to appear rather than subpoena him right away. They still haven't gotten counsel Don McGahn before them. Why did Hope Hicks get to testify behind closed doors and why isn't she before Congress this week now that the SDNY's just-released documents from their Cohen investigation appear to show that she lied to them under oath?
Democrats have only themselves to blame for where we are, complaining day after day about what they didn't get from the report instead of running with it. A large segment of the public took their word for it and believe it didn't deliver the goods when it did. Mueller can’t fix the Democrats’s unforced error.
But Mueller gave them a second chance to make a first impression. First, make a succinct version of Wednesday’s hearings, listing Mueller's confirmations of the findings in his report:
That Mueller wanted to interview Trump but didn’t subpoena him because he had the goods on him without that. That Mueller was impeded by the lying of Trump's people but not so he couldn't indict them, or Trump, after he’s out of office. That Wikileaks was encouraged and embraced by Trump. That Russia intended to benefit Trump. That the OLC memo was a reason he didn't indict Trump.
In his just-the-facts fashion, Mueller did bring Volumes I and II back from the remainder table at the bookstore.
There are actions for Democrats to take now and not after hand-wringing and asking if it would be alright: speed up court challenges to the refusal to respond to subpoenas, hold impeachment hearings, which eliminate the need to go to court because there's no need to show a legislative purpose to force people to appear, and expose Mitch McConnell for keeping a bill to limit foreign interference in 2020 from a floor vote. If the majority leader won’t do that, it’s fair to conclude that he wants Russia to interfere again, since it helps his side.
Mueller, decorated and wounded Vietnam combat veteran, reminds me of the few remaining D-Day soldiers—good men you would trust with your life, but so modest and serious it's hard to hear them. Interviewed in Normandy last month, each was only on air for a few moments and not because they were old and frail, but because our attention is too fragmented. For commanding more than a moment’s time, they'd need to go on Colbert, post on Instagram, tweet in a flashy 140 characters.
Mueller is Moses on the Mount, delivering the Ten Commandments but not dramatizing them. That would take Cecil B. DeMille millennia later. In an earlier time, the former FBI chief confirming that the president obstructed justice and that he could be charged with a crime after he leaves office—in response to Republican Rep. Ken Buck, who expected the opposite response—would be a head-slapping headline. Because Mueller was there against his better judgment, a flatliner determined not to color outside the lines, it didn't.
But maybe the day sunk in in another way. We live by contrasts and the one that is indelible from today's hearing is that Mueller is a good man who carefully, diligently, and without drawing attention to himself devoted two years to investigating a bad man so untruthful it made no sense to subpoena him. Despite all those around Trump who lied thinking the boss would save them with pardons, the good man persevered and exposed crimes to be prosecuted. He didn’t indict Trump because he honored the rules of the Department he served so long. But what he did is immeasurably valuable: he provided everything needed to indict Trump later and to impeach him now.
Mueller put his happy, private life on hold to get us here, Democrats. Shake his hand and thank him for his service. His work is done. Yours is not.