An indictment of Trump or a disaster for the Democrats? Mueller hearings entrench familiar divides

An optics disaster. “A stumblebum performance.” “Like watching a passionate conversation with an answering machine.” The denunciations of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before two congressional committees Wednesday were ample and merciless.

But at the end of a long day of sound and fury but few revelations, Republicans and Democrats were just as entrenched in their polar-opposite assessments of Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference as when the probe began more than two years ago.

And the American people were left wondering what the point of it all was.

The Republicans felt Mueller’s five hours of testimony before the judiciary and intelligence committees underscored the refrain they’ve been singing for months more emphatically than they ever could have hoped: No collusion, no obstruction.

The Democrats insisted they got just the opposite: “An indictment of this administration’s cone of silence and their coverup,” in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s words.

Democrats ‘lost so big’: Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, watched it all with glee from a distance, tweeting emphatically throughout.

“The Democrats lost so big today. Their party is in shambles right now,” he said on the White House lawn as he departed for a fundraising event in West Virginia, where he was sure to be rewarded for his party’s routing of the proverbial witch-hunt.

“The Democrats had nothing, and now they have less than nothing.”

While Trump’s assessment might be wishful thinking, you didn’t have to be a Republican to see that Mueller’s stumbling answers, frequent requests to have questions repeated and inability to recall foundational facts and key sections of his own report did not add up to the performance the Democrats had promised when they vowed to bring his 448-page report “to life.”

WATCH | Mueller has trouble following questions about collusion from Republican Doug Collins during the judiciary committee hearing:

“He provided such — what do you call it — uncomfortable clarity?” Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, a usually staunch defender of Democrats, said of Mueller, a lifelong Republican. “On optics, this was a disaster.”

Even David Axelrod, chief strategist for former Democratic Barack Obama, conceded the highly respected star prosecutor was “not as sharp” as when he last appeared before Congress six years ago.

Mueller is no James Comey

For Greg Brower, a former Republican lawmaker in Nevada and FBI liaison to Congress, the expectation that 74-year-old Mueller would be a strong witness who would deliver a riveting rendition of his findings and reignite the public’s outrage over the president’s conduct was never realistic. 

“Even though he’s tried his share of cases … he’s just never been all that compelling or charismatic. It was never gonna be a Jim Comey-type performance,” he said, referring to Mueller’s successor as FBI director whose 2017 firing by Trump prompted Mueller’s appointment and who participated in a similarly high-stakes hearing on Capitol Hill.

Former chief counsel for the FBI Greg Brower said former FBI director James Comey came across as more charismatic in June 2017 when he testified before the Senate intelligence committee hearing on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Brower, who worked under Comey at the FBI and is now in private practice, said while Wednesday’s hearing may have been a sideshow that won’t change any minds, he cautioned against throwing the baby out with the admittedly tepid bathwater.

“People should not decide that this is not a serious matter just because Robert Mueller didn’t make a compelling witness. The facts are still the facts,” he said.

For Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republicans’ chief attack dog on the judiciary committee when it came to furthering the narrative that the Mueller probe was a politically motivated campaign that was all too willing to accept the fruit of a poisoned tree, the facts were squarely in his party’s corner.

I found director Mueller intellectually dishevelled, frequently confused and highly evasive on basic questions about the activities of Russians and their commingling of interests with people associated with Democrats in the anti-Trump movement,” he told reporters outside the hearing room.

“President Trump’s tenure in office may very well have been extended by four years as a consequence of this hearing.”

WATCH | Rep. Matt Gaetz grills Mueller about alleged ties between Russians and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign:

Republican congressman Matt Gaetz becomes visibly frustrated as former U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller refuses to answer repeated questions on the Christopher Steele dossier during his testimony. 2:30

Investigations continue on both sides

The Democratic Party establishment certainly didn’t concede that fact, saying they would be carrying on with their broader investigation into the Trump campaign’s co-ordination with Russia and the president’s attempts to obstruct Mueller’s investigation.

Judiciary committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said the committee would be going to court this week to secure grand jury material and enforce a subpoena against former White House counsel Don McGahn, who, Mueller found, was asked by Trump to pressure former attorney general Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal questioned Mueller about Trump’s attempts to dismiss the special counsel and dissuade witnesses from participating in his investigation. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

The committee has authorized subpoenas for about 16 other individuals in Trump’s circle, including senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former communications director Hope Hicks.

The administration has thus far stymied those efforts, arguing aides cannot legally be compelled to testify about their work in the White House. It is also fighting the Democrats’ court attempts to obtain Trump’s tax records.

‘They’re doing it as we sit here’

One area where the two warring sides did manage to briefly come together was on Mueller’s bleak assessment that the Russians were most certainly still trying to undermine the integrity of the country’s electoral system.

“They’re doing it as we sit here — and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” a sullen Mueller said in response to questioning by Republican Will Hurd.

WATCH | Republican Rep.Will Hurd tries to shift the questioning away from partisanship:

For Democratic strategist Alaina Beverly, who conceded Wednesday was not a “blockbuster” performance for her party, that should be the takeaway from Mueller’s testimony.

“His clear concern for the safety and security of the country with regard to the integrity of our elections, that came out clear and strong,” she said.

“That, hopefully, will propel a sense of urgency in terms of response — whether it be an impeachment inquiry or bipartisan legislation to shore up our election infrastructure.”

Judiciary committee chair Jerry Nadler speaks at a news conference after the hearings, alongside intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and oversight committee head Elijah Cummings. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

But while outside the hearing room Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal dangled the promise of “imminent action,” Pelosi said lawmakers would only proceed with impeachment once they had the “strongest possible hand.”

And while she didn’t say so explicitly, it was evident that Wednesday’s hearings did little to strengthen that hand. It may in fact have weakened it, despite Mueller’s reiteration that his findings did not exonerate the president and his affirmation that he could charge the president with obstruction of justice once he left office.

Still, Pelosi did leave the door open for an impeachment vote, even with a Republican majority in the Senate, whose majority vote is needed to remove the president.

“The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook,” she said.

There are also around 25 criminal cases that came of the Mueller probe still underway.

WATCH | Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the intelligence committee, runs through the list of Trump associates who lied to investigators:

In a rapid-fire session of questions, Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chair of the U.S. House intelligence committee, and former special counsel Robert Mueller list the ways Russia helped the Trump campaign win the 2016 presidential election. 3:37

End of a chapter or more of the same?

The Republicans, meanwhile, are proceeding with their own investigations into the origins of the initial FBI investigation that began in July 2016.

They used the bulk of their time Wednesday raising such topics as the Steele dossier of intelligence on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia that the Republicans say the FBI used to obtain a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to carry out surveillance on policy aide Carter Page.

The fact they knew full well Mueller would not comment on any of it, since it predated his appointment, was proof to some of those watching that it was a red herring.

WATCH | Republican Rep. Ken Buck asks Mueller if U.S. President Donald Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice once he leaves office:

Republican Rep. Ken Buck asks former special counsel Robert Mueller whether he believes his investigation turned up evidence that could be used to charge U.S. President Donald Trump with a crime after he leaves office. 1:34

“There’s no evidence that the information was false, and there’s also no evidence Robert Mueller relied in any way on the evidence obtained with the FISA warrant,” said Barbara McQuade, a professor of law at the University of Michigan and a legal analyst for NBC News.

“And so it really strikes me as completely irrelevant to what Russia did or what the president and his campaign did.”

Those who had the patience to sit through all five hours of testimony would have heard much more devastating facts than those Republicans tried to highlight, she said, “about Russia’s attack on our country, about President Trump’s acts to welcome that help and about his efforts to conceal it from the American public.”

The Mueller hearings were not the last word on the investigation into Trump’s contacts with Russians during the 2016 election. Both parties have investigations and court cases under way. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

And so as Congress breaks for a six-week summer recess and Democrats gear up for two days of 2020 presidential candidate debates next week, the same partisan divides that have animated U.S. politics since the election of Trump hang over the U.S. capital — and by extension, the country.

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said late Wednesday it is time America turns the page on the Mueller investigation.

“Today is the end of that chapter. Today is to put politics aside and put people first,” he said.

But all indications are that won’t be happening for at least the next 15 months, when the country gets a chance to truly decide whether it wants to close the book or keep reading.

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