Opinion: Commentary on the Mueller hearing
Democrats got a big payoff from their practice sessions, as their questions were far more effective than the Republicans’ during Wednesday’s hearings with Robert Mueller.
Democratic questions reflected the hallmark of good preparation for public questioning: fluidity. They were able to adjust on the fly to (or perhaps had accurately predicted) Mueller’s red-flag issues like impeachment or anything to do with disagreements with Attorney General William Barr -- and, importantly, to Mueller’s lack of superhuman mastery over every detail of the investigation.
While Democrats initially tried to get Mueller to quote from his report or read from it, he declined to do so and Democrats easily adjusted by doing the reading themselves and having Mueller agree with their readings. This accomplished putting the words of the report into the public consciousness in a way the public would attach to an image of Mueller himself.
Huge home run for Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler in eliciting from Mueller the concrete denial that the report exonerates the President. Even though Trump will keep claiming it does, Mueller’s response will make it much harder for the President's supporters to make the same claim.
In contrast, Republicans engaged in typical ineffective Congressional questioning consisting of telegraphing the bias of their question ahead of asking it and engaging in speeches or chest-thumping while their time ran out. Mueller simply waited patiently for a question he could answer. Some Republican ineptness was particularly comical, such as when Representative Greg Steube undercut his own attempted cross-exam questioning by asking Mueller: So you disagree with my characterization? Mueller: Yes.
Lesson learned: Never tell witness on cross that your question is a “characterization” -- it’s like putting a sign on your bottom that says: Kick me.
Shanlon Wu is a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst. He served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. Follow him @shanlonwu.
It’s quite possible that Robert Mueller does not want his testimony to become the trigger for a historic indictment of President Trump. But drip by drip, word by word, Mueller has nonetheless—however reluctantly -- produced the case that Trump is lying when he says Mueller exonerated him, that Russia wanted and tried to help Trump to win and that Trump systematically engaged himself and his staff in an effort to obstruct justice, which would be a crime.
Mueller’s discomfort and reticence were visible in his body language and his clipped, one-word answers. He avoided handing Democrats the soundbite they wanted, the one that would perfectly encapsulate their contention that Trump has committed impeachable crimes. But the message was there.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked, “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mueller’s answer: “No.” Perhaps that’s news to Americans who have not read the Mueller report, who read Attorney General William Barr’s misleading summary of it, and heard the President declare it a “complete and total exoneration.”
Mueller again said there was insufficient evidence of a conspiracy with Russia. That does not equal innocence.
Mueller confirmed that, contrary to Trump’s claim, Russia expected to benefit if Trump won.
The obstruction questions – despite Mueller’s short answers – were devastating for Trump. “Your investigation found evidence that President Trump took steps to terminate the special counsel, correct?” Mueller: “Correct.”
Congressman Ted Lieu, elicited a three-word bombshell. “The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?” “That is correct,” Mueller said.
Later, in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller paused to clarify the exchange with Lieu: "I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, you didn't charge the president because of the OLC opinion. That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."
Democrats wanted Americans to pay attention to Mueller’s report. They wanted the movie to go with the book they didn’t read. They wanted to wash away Barr’s deliberately-distorting report summary.
Anyone watching objectively would agree that Mueller did not want to play politics. Republicans, badgering him, probably turned off non-partisan viewers.
In the end, Democrats did not get the perfect soundbite. But drip by drip, they may just have enough to convince at least part of the country that Trump committed crimes. Enough for impeachment? Maybe. Enough to swing votes in 2020? Definitely.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.
This post has been updated to include Mueller's comments to the House Intelligence Committee on his earlier exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu.
Right before the 1980 Winter Olympics gold medal ice hockey game, United States coach Herb Brooks purportedly gave his team a pep talk for all time: “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f-----g graves.” Somebody needs to reprise the Brooks speech for House Democrats today: “If you don’t stand up to Donald Trump’s abuse of power now, you’ll take it to your graves.”
I know, I know. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks it’s bad politics to impeach (and she just might be wrong; at best, she’s speculating). At some point, however, House Democrats need to understand that history will judge them harshly if, in pursuit of an elusive few points in public opinion polling, they turn their backs on what their own leaders -- and now Robert Mueller -- have effectively described as an obstruction of justice crime spree.
Even before today’s hearing, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler had declared that there is “very substantial evidence” Trump is “guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors” -- the precise formulation set forth in the Constitution to justify impeachment. Even Pelosi, despite her entrenched anti-impeachment position, accused Trump of “engag[ing] in a cover-up” and reportedly said she wants to see Trump “in prison.” Despite this hot rhetoric, neither Pelosi nor Nadler have authorized even an impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, Mueller had his say and confirmed that Pelosi and Nadler have it right, at least in their words if not yet in their (in)action. Mueller already had written that the Russian state interfered with the 2016 election to help Trump win; that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally” from that Russian interference; that “substantial evidence” exists that Trump tried to obstruct the investigation; and that the evidence “does not exonerate” Trump.
He also said several important things out loud. No, Mueller’s investigation did not exonerate Trump and did not find “no obstruction,” as Trump has endlessly -- falsely -- claimed to the American public. Yes, Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president prevented Mueller from making a determination on obstruction of justice. No, Trump did not fully cooperate with the investigation. Yes, a president can be indicted for obstruction after leaving office.
Now comes the moment of truth. Will House Democrats cower at the dated, preconceived, speculative notion that impeachment -- or even an impeachment inquiry -- might hurt them politically by a few polling points? Or will House Democrats do their constitutional duty, take a stand against an epic and unprecedented abuse of presidential power and let the political chips fall where they may? The legacy of this Congress, and our fundamental notions of accountability, hang in the balance.
Elie Honig is a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor. Follow him at @eliehonig.
Democrats got what they wanted out of the hearing right off the bat in Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday. Mueller made clear he had not exonerated the President and indicated that Trump could be charged and prosecuted after he left office.
If the hearing had ended after the first 30 minutes, Democrats could have felt pretty good about the outcome. Whether or not this hearing leads to a shift in public opinion (which is the Democrats’ real objective) is a harder hill to climb. Whether they will succeed will take longer to determine.
On the other hand, Republicans appeared to have conflicting strategies. While holding up the Mueller report as clearing Donald Trump of all wrongdoing, they also used the hearing to attempt to discredit Mueller. Why would you discredit the author of the report that you are simultaneously holding up as evidence of the President’s innocence?
Their questioning was all over the place, from charging Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama to an obsession with the Strzok texts. It showed a weakness of strategy and a lack of direction about where Republicans can and should effectively go as momentum builds toward potential impeachment.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.