The Mueller Hearings: Many Questions, Few Surprises

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

After the eight hours of mostly low-key and some closing moments of emotional testimony by former Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Commitees, the case for impeachment of this president may not yet have persuaded enough Democrats who would have to be the ones to bring it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding firm to the need to see more facts and hear more witnesses before she is prepared to order that inquiry—and she was joined by another Californian, Rep. Adam Schiff (Los Angeles), who chaired the second and more riveting House Intelligence Committee’s hearing.

Despite her continuing resistance to launching an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi made her feelings very clear:

 “There’s a code of silence in the White House that is engaged in a massive cover up and obstruction of justice,” Pelosi said. “Those obstruction of justice charges as demonstrated today in the hearings could be indictable offenses by anybody else not the president of the United States.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (W. Los Angeles), a Judiciary panel member, caught Mueller in a legal quagmire when he asked him if he had declined to indict Trump solely because of an oft-cited Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel memo which protects a sitting president from being indicted.

The belief is that Mueller has gone to considerable lengths to avoid saying that there is a felon in the White House, suggesting that but for the OLC memo, he might have found Trump indictable. Mueller has disavowed that interpretation, and he walked back that response.

But the downplaying of impeachment is hardly the most important takeaway from these disturbing proceedings.  

Mueller, whether intentionally or not painted a vivid picture of a president who was willing to embrace and indeed privately and publicly encouraged interference by a foreign power—namely Russia– in the election which sent him to the White House.

The investigation into Russian interference and ultimate “collusion” or conspiracy with the Trump Administration—non-legal terms which the Mueller report never invokes—-was the prevailing theme of the hearings. 

Trump’s open coziness with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, is old news. The entanglements came into sharp relief with disclosure of the construction of the Trump Tower which was under discussion well before Trump’s election—a project ultimately abandoned. It would have been highly lucrative for both parties as Schiff got Mueller to agree.

The House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (Bakersfield) went to the air waves immediately declaring “there was no collusion.” Trump described the hearings as “a very good day”, declaring victory.

The question is no longer whether there was obstruction of justice which this president is likely to deny right up to the time he could potentially be indicted and sent to prison, but how much the public will stomach before the pressures which drove a former president and a Californian from office kick in.

Although Mueller’s limpid responses were delivered in dry, undramatic monotones often haltingly from a man who will turn 75 in a few weeks, the menacing images which it conjured up of a president willing to put himself above the law were inescapable

At times Mueller seemed even befuddled and hazy about some of the facts. The Democrats had hoped for some fireworks and having him read directly from his weighty report. 

However, his dry staccato one-word responses may have been just as effective for purposes of eliciting Mueller’s agreement with how the   member’s questions were framed. 

As a result of Muller’s testimony, a convincing case can now be made that our democracy may be in considerable peril if Russia’s confirmed tampering in our political elections continues to be sanctioned.

For those voters who are not yet impressed that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, the prospect that the Russians or some other nation could inflict grave damage on our system of government should be sufficient reason in and of itself to question whether the best interests of our country are served by the reelection of a leader who shows no qualms in consorting with an enemy power.

Even some Republicans are now acknowledging that Russian involvement poses a serious threat and the apparently ongoing FBI counterintelligence inquiry—one of Mueller’s more stunning revelations—is urgent enough to merit bipartisan cooperation.

That impression was not dispelled and in fact was perhaps the most alarming highlight of Mueller’s testimony who deflected questions about clarification concerning these dangers as being an area outside his jurisdiction. 

However for perhaps one of the few moments, the normally taciturn Mueller seemed to display some emotion when in responding to a question about Russia’s campaign intervention, he stressed, regarding the efforts to undermine our elections, “they’re doing it now as we sit here.”

 Then, not mincing words, Mueller asserted that, contrary to Trump’s regularly repeated trope, this investigation “was not a hoax. It was not a witch hunt.”  

This is the same FBI from which James Comey, its former director, was fired by Trump in July 2013 for what the president saw as his insufficient probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email server, later dismissed for failure to show Clinton had committed any prosecutable wrongdoing.

It was the Comey firing which triggered the appointment of the Special Counsel who Rep. Eric Swalwell (Alameda/Contra Costa Counties) pointed out Trump also sought to have fired.

Russia criminalized and sabotaged the election in Mueller’s words, “in a sweeping and systematic fashion”, agreeing with Schiff’s terse observation that Trump then lied about it. 

Putting stronger emphasis on his apparent revulsion at such behavior Mueller testified that Trump deliberately “misled the probe and was unpatriotic.”

Mueller, a Republican, a former Marine who was awarded a bronze star in the Vietnam War, once headed the FBI and takes duty to his country very seriously, has bent over—some might say too far—to demonstrate his impartiality. 

A man of impeccable integrity, he took great pains not to veer from his lawyerly duties refusing to answer 200 questions to the chagrin of the Democrats who hoped he might not stick that closely to the script ordered by the Justice Department.

Upon intense questioning by Schiff, Mueller put an even finer point on his finding that the president’s behavior was “unethical” and then added without prompting by the Chair, that it constituted “a crime.” 

Attorney General William Barr has flatly declared based on his reading of the doctored Mueller report that Trump “was fully exonerated,” and there was no obstruction of justice.

Mueller restated without qualification his own conclusion that Trump “was not exonerated,” inferring that there is sufficient evidence in his 448 page unredacted report offering ample reasons why exoneration was never in the cards.

Barr’s overly-charitable interpretation of the president’s actions (some have called it an outright fabrication) has been widely discredited.  

There is broad consensus in the legal community, echoing Speaker Pelosi’s words, that any other citizen but a sitting president would probably be indicted for such actions.

This has impeachment proponents worried that if Trump is re-elected, the statute of limitations could run out to indict him on any crimes he may have committed. Furthermore, prosecution in the courts would be much easier following a record of impeachment.

These hearings opened a book which needed a public airing that the earlier release of the Mueller Report did not accomplish. Whether it moved the impeachment dial even one inch is not known. 

But the Californians who took center stage today along with Gerald Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chair, and their fellow committee members who put a reluctant Special Counsel through grueling questioning may have altered the political playground forever.

The Democrats on both panels were well organized in divvying up the issues on which to question Mueller—a rarity among a party whose members are notorious for mixing it up.

Whether this discipline can be sustained going forward with impeachment proponents pulling in one direction and others believing riddance of Trump is more likely going through the courts and at the polls remains to be seen. 

 Other breakthrough moments are possible with key witnesses such as former White House Counsel, Don McGahn who has been issued a subpoena to testify. If he and others refuse, a protracted legal battle is  all but inevitable which would benefit the president.

What is certain is that the Mueller hearings did not bring closure and what follows could be much uglier.

 

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.