Robert Mueller performs in congressional Kabuki theater

Former special counsel Robert Mueller is sworn in to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Former special counsel Robert Mueller is sworn in to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Here is a sampling of Robert Mueller’s most compelling soundbites, delivered today in front of the House Judiciary Committee:

“That’s the way we have it in the report.”

“I’m going to ask you to rely on what we wrote about that in the report.”

“I rely on the language in the report.”

“I direct you to what we’ve written in the report.”

“I direct you again to the report.”

“I refer you to the write-up of this in the report.”

“I will send you back to the report.”

If the House Democrats truly anticipate that his public testimony will galvanize the benumbed, indifferent, or willfully oblivious American people to support a formal impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, they’ll probably have to pin their hopes on this scintillating remark: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”

His tendentious terminology, coupled with his stoic reticence, will not move the ball forward. Surely the Democrats knew this from the outset. Mueller believes that the special counsel’s report speaks for itself. He knows that the Democrats already know what’s in the report, and he wasn’t about to recite what they already know. He knows it’s up to Congress whether to act or punt on his material — to open an impeachment probe or, at minimum, to keep investigating — so the vast amount of verbiage in the House hearings is basically a cross that he’s forced to bear.

It’s also classic Kabuki theater — a contrived drama performed in real life in a totally predictable fashion. House Democrats read aloud the many report passages that are devastating to Trump (most notably, 10 specific episodes that constitute obstruction of justice), and Mueller tersely replied that, yes, their readings of what he wrote were “correct.” Which they already knew. Meanwhile, the highly caffeinated Republicans, unleashed from anger management class, treated Mueller as a piñata, accusing him of everything from partisan Trump-hating to “un-American” prosecuting. (Not one Republican voiced concern about what Mueller has called “sweeping and systematic” Russian penetration of our democratic electoral process. )

There were, of course, a few worthy nuggets, if one bothered to listen hard or long enough. When Mueller was asked whether Trump has been exonerated by the report, as Trump keeps insisting, he replied: “No.” When he was asked whether Trump’s serial obstructions of justice might be deemed criminal if not for a Justice Department memo that protects sitting presidents from indictment, Mueller replied: “That is correct.” When he was asked whether “a spectrum of witnesses” in the Trump camp lied to federal law enforcement, he said that, yes, those people did indeed “limit” the evidence he was able to get. When he was asked whether “the president tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records to an ongoing investigation,” he replied: “I would say that’s generally the summary.”

Those were all morning episodes. When Mueller was asked, during the afternoon, whether he agreed that it was “unpatriotic” for a presidential candidate to accept election help from a foreign power, he replied: “True.” When he was asked whether he was disturbed by candidate Trump’s constant praise for the thieves at WikiLeaks, he said of Trump’s behavior: “Problematic is an understatement.”

And in the morning, one of the Republicans helpfully asked: “You believe that you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?” Mueller’s response: “Yes.”

But virtually all attempts to coax loquacity came to naught. The report details Trump’s ongoing attempts to pressure White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, but when Democrats tried to tee up the most obvious softball question — “Why did the president of the United States want you fired?” — Mueller demurred: “I can’t answer that…I stand by the report.” (Which merely underscores the urgency of compelling sworn testimony from McGahn.)

The big issue is whether Americans, the vast majority of whom haven’t cared to even scan the report, will now feel sufficiently enlightened as a result of Mueller’s reluctant stint on Capitol Hill. I’m not optimistic; as veteran legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick said so well yesterday, “Mueller released Moby Dick to a country that couldn’t quite be bothered to open a can of tuna.” Only 37 percent of Americans reportedly support impeachment at this time, despite the mountain of evidence justifying an inquiry. Even though support for Richard Nixon’s impeachment was fairly tepid before the House courageously launched proceedings, the current Democratic Congress is clearly too timid to lead public opinion where it needs to go.

In the words of Richard Painter, who served in the White House as George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, “After this (Mueller) hearing, we know two things: First, Republicans who continue to defend Trump are liars who betray their country. Second, Democrats who refuse to impeach him are inept fools. This is a game of liars vs. losers. What a pathetic choice for American voters.”

On the eve of Mueller’s appearance, Trump spoke to a roomful of young conservatives and offered his reading of the U.S. Constitution: “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President.” Perhaps that was taught at Trump University. Article 2 also features this language: “The President…shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Mueller signaled — in as few words as possible — that impeachment is the only available remedy, the only way that we can hold a president fully accountable. Reading Mueller’s report to Mueller will not be enough. Vladimir Putin told a newspaper last month that western democracy has “outlived its purpose.” Are we prepared to prove him wrong?

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